A lot can happen over 150 years.
This season the Toronto Argonauts are celebrating their sesquicentennial, the first North American sports franchise to do that. In that century-and-a-half there have been significant contributions by Black players, coaches and executives. As we begin Black History Month, Argonauts.ca would like to recognize some of those accomplishments.
Ken Whitlock became the team’s first Black player in 1948. It was newsworthy not only because he was Black, but because he was an American. Head coach Ted Morris had exclusively employed Canadian players for the Argos’ Grey Cup wins from 1945-1947.
Whitlock’s career in Toronto was brief as he played in just four games. The first Black star for the Argos was Ulysses “Crazy Legs” Curtis, who joined the Boatmen in 1950.
Curtis was a spectacular player, scoring seven touchdowns in his rookie season and helping the Argos win a Grey Cup in the infamous “Mud Bowl” victory over Winnipeg. He’d add a second Grey Cup win two years later with a win over Edmonton.
In his five years in Double Blue, Curtis amassed 3,712 rushing yards, trailing only Dick Shatto, Michael Clemons and Bill Symons in club history. He is sixth on the team’s all-time list with 26 rushing touchdowns. He also is still remembered for a remarkable game against the Alouettes in 1952 when he rushed for 208 yards, the second-best single game in Argo history, trailing only Gill Fenerty’s 215-yard effort in 1988. “Crazy Legs” also holds the Argos’ playoff record with seven career touchdowns.
Curtis left his mark after his playing days concluded by becoming one of the first Black teachers in the North York Board of Education. He was named an All-Time Argo in 2005.
Willie Wood came to Toronto after a stellar playing career in the NFL. An integral part of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, the safety retired after winning five NFL championships and being named an All-Pro nine times. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
He found his way to Toronto as an assistant coach under his Packer teammate and fellow Hall of Fame member Forrest Gregg. When Gregg was fired after the 1979 season, Wood was named head coach, becoming the first Black head coach in CFL history.
Just after Wood’s departure following the 1981 season, two Black players from his team took the league and the city by storm.
Condredge Holloway was acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1981. He was a superstar at the University of Tennessee but was denied the opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL because of the colour of his skin. Despite being the fourth overall pick in the 1971 MLB draft by the Montreal Expos, Holloway wanted to continue playing football and found his way to Canada, where Black QBs were welcomed with open arms.
Holloway had it all: a cannon for an arm, speed, scrambling ability, and the ability to diagnose a defence and call the right play at the line of scrimmage. His career really took off when paired with a receiver from Alabama State.
Terry Greer came to Toronto in 1980 and found a remarkable chemistry with Holloway two years later. It resulted in back-to-back Grey Cup appearances in 1982 and 1983, culminating in a Grey Cup championship in ’83, although QB Joe Barnes came in at halftime in that game as Holloway had a case of the flu.
The Holloway/Greer combination was the most electric the city had experienced since the days of Joe Krol and Royal Copeland. In 1983 Greer become the first player in pro-football history to record over 2,000 receiving yards in a season – it’s only been done twice since – and remains the only player in league history to record 200 receiving yards in three consecutive games; a record that may never be equaled.
Holloway was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1999. It took Greer another two decades before joining his teammate.
J.C. Watts headed to Toronto under the same pretext as both Holloway; the NFL did not allow the Oklahoma star to play quarterback. Watts headed to Toronto for a brief stint after leading Ottawa to an appearance in the 1981 Grey Cup game, almost upsetting the heavy favourites from Edmonton.
Watts’ career on the field was good, but his off-field career in politics and business is what he’ll be best remembered for.
As the Michael “Pinball” Clemons’ post-playing career nears the quarter century mark, it’s a reminder that younger fans never had the opportunity to see the man who carried/caught/returned the ball for more total yards (25,396) than any other pro football player.
He lit up any stadium he played in with both his ability and his smile. Simply put, Clemons is one of the greatest players in the history of the league and perhaps its greatest ambassador. As much as he’s done for the Argos, he’s done more for the community through his Michael “Pinball” Clemons Foundation, which has done remarkable work both here and abroad.
Clemons retired just before the 2000 Labour Day Classic, moving from slotback to head coach; an unheard-of transition, especially in mid-season. He took to the role quickly but stepped aside to become team president in November 2001. A year later he’d become the team’s mid-season replacement as head coach and would remain in that role until 2007.
In 2004 the Argos would take on the BC Lions in the Grey Cup game. It was the first time a Black head coach had led his team to the title game. Clemons would again make history when his team beat the Lions and he’d become the first Black head coach to win a title in either the CFL or NFL.
The Hall-of-Famer remains all over the Argos’ record book. His 186 games in Double Blue is eighth all-time. He’s second to Dick Shatto in total TDs and rushing yards. He is first in career receptions and fourth in career receiving yards. He has the second and third highest single-season reception total. He holds both the single-season and career punt return yards records. He trails only Bob O’Billovich in games coached and games won by a coach and trails just Lew Hayman for most playoff wins by a head coach.
These are just some of the men who have been trailblazers on and off the field. In the 75 years since Ken Whitlock played for the Argos, the contributions of Black players and coaches have been invaluable to the success of the CFL team with the most Grey Cup wins.