The Canadian Press
It was early December, 2011 and Scott Milanovich was in his first few days on the job as the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts.
One of those nights, he sat alone at a restaurant table, waiting for his boss to rejoin him for dinner.
Milanovich had likely tried to prepare himself for every scenario that could pop up on him. This was his first time as a head coach, but it wasn’t his first time around a general manager.
Life around a GM in any sport is one laced with interruption. You hope for full, uninterrupted conversation but a reality of texts, emails, calls almost always wins. So Milanovich probably didn’t think much of Barker’s absence from the dinner, or that his return would mark a change in the course of direction for the entire Argos organization.
Barker finally returned, sat down and asked his new head coach a question that he probably wasn’t prepared to hear.
What would you think if I told you we had a chance to get Ricky Ray?
“Scott just lit up, like, ‘Wow,’” Barker said.
“That was the start of it.”
MORE ON RAY’S RETIREMENT
» Ricky Ray officially retires from CFL
» By the Numbers: A look at Ricky Ray’s career
» Player Bio: Ricky Ray through the years
» O’Leary: Reminiscing on the legacy of Ricky Ray
The Argos officially acquired Ray on Dec. 12, 2011. The Grey Cup had been handed out just two weeks prior and the story of the 2012 season had already been etched in stone. One of the biggest trades in CFL history — one that many also label one of the worst — had been completed and it set the stage for a picture perfect ending to the Argos’ season.
Ray, then a two-time Grey Cup champion and the Esks’ nominee for Most Outstanding Player five times, went to Toronto in exchange for QB Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a first-round draft pick that ended up being used on offensive lineman Austin Pasztor. Pasztor never made it to the CFL. He’s heading into his eighth season in the NFL.
While players and fans alike in Edmonton reeled from the trade, the mood in Toronto was somewhat different. They’d dealt with uncertainty at quarterback since Damon Allen had retired after the 2006 season. They’d gone 6-12 in 2011 and missed the playoffs and were set to host the 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre in 2012.
“On our end it was just like, ‘Yeeesss,’” said Argos fullback Jeff Johnson.
“The guy that we got, look at what we’re doing. There was nothing negative (in the deal for Toronto). It was all positive on the Toronto end and it all paid off.”
“I remember hearing the news and being so elated,” said Jordan Younger, the Argos’ cornerback in 2012.
“You might be able to compare Ricky in the CFL to Gretzky and the NHL, both leaving Edmonton,” said running back Chad Kackert, who would be named MVP of the Grey Cup game that year.
“(The trade created) this air of, ‘We’re going to take things more seriously this year, we’ve got a better hand dealt, let’s take advantage of it.’”
The first thing that Johnson did after the trade broke was call his friend and former Argos teammate, Brian Ramsay, who’d played on the Esks’ offensive line in the 2011 season with Ray. He asked him what Ray was like as a teammate.
Ramsay told him he was one of the greatest guys he’d ever get a chance to play with.
“He told me that it’s always about him. He never blames anyone else for anything. He puts it on himself. If something doesn’t work well he takes the onus for it,” Johnson said.
“He said they were playing against Calgary. They were at Calgary’s 35-yard line, first and 10. They snap the ball and Ramsay makes a mistake and just kind of loses his footing a bit and a guy gets by and hammers Ricky a bit and there’s a sack.
“They get back into the huddle and Rammer’s like, ‘Oh man, I’m sorry about that.’ Ricky just said, ‘Oh no, it’s all good. I should have gotten rid of the ball sooner.’
“That’s his mentality. It’s not you, it’s ‘I should have done something else to make the play successful. There’s something I could have done to do my job better. You’re good, just keep doing your thing and we’ll get this.’”
It almost feels wrong to suggest Ray has a mystique. He retired on Wednesday as one of the absolute best players the CFL has ever seen, but spent his 17-year career content to look like a face in the crowd. “Two words were a mouthful,” Barker said of Ray’s leadership style. But Ray made it work. His play did the talking and when he felt something needed to be said, he said it.
“The average quarterback comes in and they’re coming from the NFL or the NCAA. They’re usually pretty confident and they think they know exactly what to do and how to do it,” Argos offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl said.
“Then you get a guy like Ricky that has won at this level and he doesn’t have anything to prove. He came in and went to work, kept quiet, he didn’t say a thing. It was unlike any other quarterback.
“I’ve been friends with Zach (Collaros) and Trevor (Harris) and guys that have come and gone now and gone on to have great careers and the biggest difference between them and Rick is just how normal and even better said is regular (Ray is).
“Ricky was always the same guy, whether he was on the field or in the classroom taking notes. He’s always the first one there, always the last one out, always tending to his craft. When his shoulder was sore he’d be in physio and taking care of that. It’s just always the same Ricky.”
Going on seven years later, everyone will remember the positive moments from that season. They’ll remember Toronto hosting and demolishing Edmonton in the Eastern Semi-Final that year, when Ray spiked the ball between his legs as his Argos put a CFL-record 31-points on the Esks in the second quarter. They’ll remember Ray getting the best of Anthony Calvillo and the Montreal Alouettes a week later in the Eastern Final. They’ll remember the 35-22 win over Calgary at the Rogers Centre in the 100th Grey Cup, with Ray hoisting his third championship. But the journey to that remarkable playoff run was far from easy.
The Argos’ 2012 season was full of ups and downs. Ray and the Argos lost in Edmonton to open the season, but built up a 6-4 record before he went down with a knee injury in Week 13. In his absence, the Argos fell to 7-8.
Johnson recalls getting Ray back for the third-last game of the regular-season and he thought it was at the perfect time. They were hosting Winnipeg, a team that posted a league-worst six wins that year.
“We thought we’d whup those guys,” Johnson said. “Winnipeg came in and kicked our ass all over the place.
“There couldn’t have been a darker cloud looming over the locker room.”
The Argos found the silver lining in that cloud. With their record at 7-9, the team’s leaders stepped up, voiced concerns and stressed the importance of having a good bounce back game in Saskatchewan the following week.
Playing in Regina, it finally all clicked for them. Ray completed 80 per cent of his passes and threw four touchdown passes. The Argos won 31-26. They wouldn’t lose again that season.
“You just kind of felt a quiet momentum building and we carried that basically through the playoffs,” Van Zeyl said.
“It was the first game where everything started to come together in all three phases,” Younger said.
“After that Saskatchewan game we got into the locker room and I remember looking around in everyone’s eyes. That was it. That was the turning point,” Johnson said.
“It felt like a jet taking off.”
About that jet…
“It was Halloween weekend,” remembered Kackert, who rushed for 53 yards in the win.
“No one was going out that night but everyone dressed up in their Halloween costumes for the flight home. Half the linemen were dressed up as the Flint Tropics from Semi Pro, wigs and everything.”
“The celebration was like, OK, these guys love being around each other. I won’t say what went on on that (flight home),” he laughed, “but we had a blast.
“To me that was a huge turning point.”
Milanovich and Barker gambled on some moves throughout the season that paid off. They cut running back Cory Boyd despite him leading the league in rushing and gave Kackert the starting job. In mid-October, they convinced defensive lineman Adriano Belli to come out of retirement and join the team. They’d gone through massive change that year, with Ray as the new starting quarterback and Jarious Jackson backing him up. They were under a new head coach with new faces on the coaching staff. But they followed Ray’s quiet, hardworking lead and once they felt like they figured it out they felt unstoppable.
“Ricky Ray gave the organization hope. He gave the Toronto Argonauts hope,” Barker said.
“We didn’t know who our quarterback was. Without that established quarterback, you can’t develop young quarterbacks, you can’t do anything. And once that trade was made it changed everything and everybody in our organization knew with Ricky Ray we had a chance.”
“In order to understand, to get a gauge of how special Ricky was, it had to be one of those days where you’d get to the stadium early, like really early to get a jump on things and he’d already been there an hour and a half,” Younger said.
“I guess the core of human nature as far as reaching your potential, hope has a lot to do with it. Having a guy that you know day in and day out knows what he’s going to do and is going to execute at a high level no matter what the pressure situation, if it’s a winning streak, losing streak he was going to be the same. It was this calming influence that made it easier for everybody.”
With the trade completed and the news not yet out, Barker wanted to talk with Ray. He knew he had added a great football player to his roster but he didn’t actually know Ray. He was surprised to find the toll that the trade had on him.
“He was a little down. He loved Edmonton, he loved the guys in Edmonton. It was right above where he was from (in California). It was in the west and this was a totally new deal to come to Toronto, the bigger city,” Barker said.
“You never get too much with Ricky but you always knew you were getting everything.”
Argos offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl
“I’ll never forget the phone call. He was never like, ‘I don’t want to be there.’ It was nothing like that. Just in his way of, he needed time to let this (settle in). You just never know. You make a trade like that and you think, ‘God, the guy comes in and he doesn’t really want to be here and I didn’t really know Ricky Ray that much. I knew who he was in terms of how great a player he was. I knew the mystique he brought but I didn’t know the kind of man he was, any of that.”
Settling into Toronto and settling in with the Argonauts would take time. Barker thought Ray put the trade behind him once the season got going. Other teammates felt like it happened at different points in the year. After that win in Saskatchewan came a narrow 43-40 win over Hamilton to close out the regular season. Then, because the football Gods love a good story, Ray and the Argos hosted Edmonton as a crossover opponent in the first round of the playoffs.
Mention Ray putting a career’s worth of stoicism on pause to spike the ball between his legs on a rushing touchdown against his former team and it always gets a laugh out of his teammates.
“I think for the team, (the game against Edmonton) was just a step but for the guys on the team that had history with Ricky, that were fans of Ricky, we knew how much it meant to him,” Younger said.
“That little spike was the most emotion I’d ever seen him display during a game. That kind of just letting it all of his shoulders, that was the moment to me that he was a Toronto Argonaut. He was no longer an Edmonton Eskimo. That was his moment and I think that kind of propelled us into the next week.”
Going into that first playoff game and certainly after, it felt like the Argos’ taking the 100th Grey Cup on their homeground was a foregone conclusion.
“I’d been on a lot of rebuilding teams and being on that team specifically, we kept getting better every game; even in our losses,” said Argos receiver Andre Durie. “We learned from every situation and having a leader like Ricky that was in each meeting and giving us that direction, we just kept building. We just felt like we couldn’t lose.”
“Everything kind of came together,” Van Zeyl said. “I’ve won it twice now with Ricky and that’s kind of been the feeling both times.
“It’s incredible watching how well he performed on a game-to-game basis, really without too much exception ever.
“That’s just a testament to how he prepared, what kind of person he was. I don’t know if I’m ever going to have a quarterback like he was: cool, calm and collected. You knew he meant business when he was in that pocket.
“You never get too much with Ricky but you always knew you were getting everything.”