Back in his playing days, Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons made a name for himself – literally – by bouncing off would-be tacklers and proving wrong those who claimed he was too tiny for professional football.
Nowadays, the Toronto Argonauts’ general manager helps young people bounce off their own adversities and prove wrong those who doubt them on the path to success.
The Pinball Clemons Foundation is dedicated to assisting marginalized and racialized youth successfully enter the workforce in careers they desire.
Not in jobs they simply endure.
“We think that this is our best work,” Clemons says, “because we are giving young people their independence. It’s one thing to help someone. It’s another to enrich someone to the point where they can care for themselves.”
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That starts, Clemons says, with the simple act of people seeing one another – really seeing one another.
“So many times, people of colour have had the experience of disrespect,” Clemons says. “It’s something you feel through history. And in large part, because some of it is still so prevalent when you look at where we are, when you look at the representation in positions of leadership, regardless of where it may be in business, government and so on.
“Black History Month, says that we’re trying, right? You see me.”
All people deserve to be seen, Clemons says. They need to be seen to realize their potential.
“I’m not saying this because I’m a Black person,” Clemons says. “In my book, we should be able to see everyone and see the best in them.”
Seeing the best in people — and in himself — has proved a winning formula for Clemons in football and in life overall.
As a player, the five-foot-six, 170-pounder served as an electrifying triple threat for the Argos as a running back, receiver and kick returner.
In 1990, Clemons was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. He hoisted the Grey Cup three times as a player before making history in 2004 as the first Black head coach to win the Grey Cup.
An impressive legacy, especially considering he figured his football days were over.
“I actually interned at a company called Honeywell,” says Clemons, who earned an economics degree through the College of William & Mary in Virginia. “They were actually going to pay for my MBA. That was sort of the path I was taking.
“And so, football was a mistake. I never thought I would be big enough.”
The Kansas City Chiefs selected Clemons in the eighth round of the 1987 NFL Draft. He played in eight games that season. A year later, an offer from the Toronto Argonauts changed everything.
“I called my mom and said, `Mom, this team from Toronto is calling to see if I want to play. I’m not sure what to do,’ And she says, `You know, you’re going to work for the rest of your life. Get it out of your system.’
“And so, 30-something years later, it’s still not out of my system.”
To this day, Clemons relies on his mom for advice whenever he makes a big decision.
“My dad was the intern at my mom’s school,” says Clemons, who was born in Dunedin, FL. “It was an all-segregated school. Back in the day, that’s the way things were. That relationship wasn’t exactly supposed to happen. But it did. And because it did, I’m here.”
Raising her son as an 18-year-old single mom, Anna Bryant taught by example.
“Better than by telling me, she showed me how to be a decent, caring, responsible person,” he says. “My mom is absolutely everything. She’s a greater reason for my success than I am myself.”
Clemons credits his dad for paying for his mom to take an administration course – similar to the micro-credentials his foundation deploys today to help young people find meaningful work.
Bryant went on to become the first person of colour to work in an administrative position for the City of Dunedin. Thirty-eight years later, she retired as supervisor of the utility buildings department.
“She is tiny but mighty,” Clemons says. “I’m tiny. I don’t know if I’m as mighty as she is.”
That mighty woman impressed upon her son the importance of education.
“I love sports,” he said. “I played them all. But school was the most important thing.”
That’s why the Pinball Clemons Foundation focuses on helping young people pursue education – whether that be in information technology, administration, the trades or a multitude of other disciplines.
“I work hard at seeing those who are underprivileged,” says Clemons.
“This work doesn’t happen without the incredible players at the foundation, including our esteemed youth mentors at One Voice One Team, and the dedicated expertise of our career development professionals, the White Board Collective.
“This vision is initiated by our invaluable Board of Directors, alongside our All-Star staff who fastidiously execute and oversee our ‘Margins to Mainstream’ model. Finally, but unforgettably, we can’t overlook the unwavering support and kind consideration of our incomparable donors, whose generosity makes this transformative platform a reality.
“It doesn’t matter what nationality they are. Our hope is that we can see everybody. And when I say see everybody, I mean that we encourage. We support. We root for. We get behind.”