Toronto Argonauts

If Leon Scored...

By Phil Kitchen

It is a defining moment in Canadian Sports history. The young and brash Toronto Argonauts struggling to mount a comeback against the veteran battle tested Calgary Stampeders. A thrilling interception return by Dick Thornton and an ensuing red zone drive. The result is etched in the minds of Argonaut fans. The wet turf, the hand-off to running back Leon McQuay and the subsequent stumble and fumble.

Of course there is the fact that had he stayed on his feet the next play would have been for a tying field goal and not a game winner. These details have been forgotten and the fumble stands as the difference between victory, a subsequent end to 19 years of Grey Cup futility for Toronto, and defeat.

Let us suppose then that Thornton had ‘zigged’ instead of ‘zagged’ on that interception return and scored. Or that McQuay had scampered free and clinched the game for the Argonauts. If the Argonauts had won the 1971 Grey Cup there would be NFL football in Toronto today. It is a bold proclamation. As a Canadian Football fan and an Argo fan I choose to thank Leon for that fumble and the enjoyment of the Canadian Football League ever since.

It may be perceived as outlandish to tie the fate of the biggest league in professional sports coming to Toronto on one play or one game so let’s consider the sporting landscape in the early 1970’s. The NFL was just starting to uncover the value of television dollars buoying clubs finances beyond paid attendance. Renegade leagues were starting, failing and merging all over the sports world. The AFL/NFL merger had just happened in 1970, mergers would happen with the ABA/NBA (1976) and the WHA/NHL (1979) by the end of the decade.

The Argonauts at the time were a rich and powerful sporting enterprise. Unlike today’s version owner John Bassett had bountiful newspaper dollars and a robust season ticket base backing the club. 1971 marked an important time for the CFL and specifically the Argonauts as they went toe-to-toe with NFL clubs for collegiate talent and landed a number of top players. Bringing in top flight talent had the public’s attention and debating how the club would stack up against NFL clubs was a reasonable undertaking for fans and observers. With this backdrop consider then the Argonauts becoming Grey Cup champions; proving that top U.S. collegiate talent could succeed in Canadian football. The aftermath of a dominant championship CFL team for the paying public and media would be what is the next challenge? And a reasonable answer - why not Pete Rozelle and the NFL?

Where Minister of Health Marc Lalonde brought in legislation to block the World Football League coming to Toronto in 1974 the NFL would have arguably been a different story especially if pursued from within the Argonaut offices. Being kings of a 9 team circuit with the main contributors coming from a 4-down background could have led to a logical next step of looking south.

Consider the fact that once the Argonauts finally delivered and captured the hallowed trophy in 1983, the pent up anticipation and longing for victory quickly dissipated and interest in the club fell noticeably. Keeping in mind a number of other contributing factors around the league’s declining television contract and blackout policies – there was an appreciable Grey Cup hangover that left the fans with a feeling of accomplishment and not necessarily a hunger to return for more of the same.

The football landscape changed dramatically between 1971 and 1983. By 1983 the NFL had moved into mega-dollar television deals across multiple networks. The CFL could no longer compete for top end talent on a broad scale. Also a factor, after years of futility forcing high paid U.S. talent into an overall weak Argonaut team of non-imports it was the homegrown CFL-centric talent that ultimately led to the success of the Argonauts under Ralph Sazio’s leadership.

A case study emphasizing both the change in landscape by the 1980’s and proof of the need for CFL based talent was the 1981 Montreal Alouettes under the fly-by-night ownership of Nelson Skalbania. In an end-around attempt to set-up his team for consideration by the NFL he landed a boat load of NFL talent in Vince Ferragamo, James Scott, David Overstreet and Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson. The group failed miserably finishing 3-13 as Skalbania snuck out of town with unpaid bills.

Consider then a 1971 Grey Cup champion Argonaut club loaded for bear stocked with prize U.S. recruits. It may have taken 1-2 more Grey Cups to turn the tide however, given the sporting environment at the time it is possible that big league Toronto would have looked to the big NFL as its next conquest.

As it stands none of that has happened and happily we still have the Argonauts and again a thriving Canadian Football League. Perhaps it is a stretch to have it all hinge on one play or one game… or maybe more likely it is simply a way to bring a silver lining to a painful moment in Argonauts history.