If Leon Scored...
By Phil Kitchen
It is a defining moment in Canadian Sports history. The young and
Toronto Argonauts struggling to mount a comeback against
the veteran battle tested Calgary Stampeders. A thrilling
interception return by
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
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
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,
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.