Grey Cup - 1991 - Winnipeg
Stadium - Toronto 36 - Edmonton 21
The Big Payoffr -
Peter King – Sports Illustrated – December 2, 1991
In a champagne-drenched locker room at
Winnipeg Stadium on Sunday, while his Toronto Argonaut teammates drank
from the Grey Cup after their 36-21 Canadian Football League championship
victory over the Calgary Stampeders, veteran defensive lineman Harold
Hallman had something he felt compelled to say. He went over to Argos
co-owner John Candy, who was standing in a rear hallway, put his arms
around the big actor-comedian and whispered in his ear, "Thanks for coming
in and saving us. You guys, I love you." Candy, one of Toronto's three
rookie owners, wiped away a tear.
A year ago the Grey Cup, the CFL's showcase event, was played before a
papered house in Vancouver, and the eight-team league was flirting with
extinction. One franchise, the Ottawa Rough Riders, was about to fold;
another, the municipally owned Stampeders, was desperate to sell but
couldn't find a buyer; and Harry Ornest, proprietor of the CFL's flagship
franchise, the Argos, was looking to get out as well.
But in February, along came California tycoon Bruce McNall and two
celebrity partners, Candy and Wayne Gretzky, to buy the Argos. Two months
later, on the eve of the NFL draft, McNall lured Notre Dame hotshot Raghib
(Rocket) Ismail across the border with the offer of the richest contract
in pro football. It all added up to instant revival for Toronto and the
CFL. "I like to call it the Lazarus syndrome," Candy says.
While the Argos were roaring through a championship season—going 13-5 and
then routing the defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers 42-3 in
the playoffs—they were also providing some impetus for the transfer of the
Ottawa and Calgary franchises to new, stable ownerships and puffing up
Canadian pride in the tired old CFL.
On Sunday, a sellout crowd of 51,985 that had paid as much as $107
(Canadian dollars) for a ticket, withstood a windchill of - 19 to watch a
command performance by the league's marquee name. In the fourth quarter,
Ismail dodged Calgary tacklers, not to mention a full can of beer thrown
at him from the stands, to return a kickoff 87 yards for the touchdown
that broke open a 22-21 game. The win gave Toronto its second Grey Cup
title since 1952, and the league a new lease on life.
And those weren't the only dividends that the McNall group's
investment—the three principals put up $5 million for the Argos, and then
McNall signed a contract that guaranteed Ismail at least $18.2 million
over four years—had paid. Ismail's first-year salary was $3.5 million, but
according to McNall, Toronto's gate receipts in 1991 were about $3 million
more than last season's and advertising revenue had increased at least $1
million. "I'm certain we at least broke even on the deal," McNall says.
"More important, the value of this franchise and every franchise in the
league is up because of it."
Actually, how Rocket played this season was secondary to the impact his
signing had on Canadian football fans. (He led the CFL with 2,959 combined
rushing, receiving and return yards, but he was runner-up to British
Columbia Lions back Jon Volpe in the Rookie of the Year vote.) "When you
start a fire, the first thing you get is a spark," Ismail said the day
before the Grey Cup. "I'm that tiny spark. That's my role in this league."
And it will continue to be his role in 1992. "I'll definitely be back next
year," Ismail said after the game, doing his best to refute rumors that he
would soon sign with the Los Angeles Raiders, who own the NFL rights to
While McNall believes Ismail will return to the Argos, he says he won't
stand in the way if Rocket decides to fly south. "I don't own people,"
says McNall. "The last thing I need is an unhappy superstar. It's hard for
people in the NFL to realize he's happy. And I know he is."
On Sunday, Ismail returned four kicks for 183 yards, five punts for 70
yards and caught two passes for seven yards to finish with 260 combined
yards and the game's MVP award. "Give him a raise!" running back Michael
Clemons called out to Ismail in the winners' locker room.