Pinball on the HOF (Toronto Sun)

From today's Toronto Sun (4/3/08)

An Argo-Cat fan


By STEVE SIMMONS (Toronto Sun)

HAMILTON -- The first time his jersey was retired, he was 11 years old -- No. 32 from the Dunedin Golden Eagles was hung from the wall at Capogna's Dugout, a popular Italian restaurant.

"One game I laugh about, I had four touchdowns in five carries and over 200 yards -- and it's only the second quarter. And on my fifth carry, the coach is yelling get out of bounds, get out of bounds. So I ran out of bounds. I didn't actually get tackled," Michael (Pinball) Clemons says.

"They said: 'He looks like The Juice (O.J. Simpson). He runs like The Juice. He is The Juice.' Of course, I wore No. 32 and at the time he was my favourite player. And I played both ways. I played middle linebacker -- if you can believe it -- and I was the best offensive player and the best defensive player."

Clemons is juking from question to question, memory to memory, camera to camera, all of it exciting and emotional on the day one of the greatest wrongs in the Canadian Football League was righted. Five years after he was first eligible, four years of being passed over by a voting committee that should be embarrassed with itself, Clemons officially became a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame yesterday.

It meant he was telling stories about running the ball all over Dunedin as a kid. It meant he was talking and preaching and relating and remembering and praising his own mother for everything he is and he has become.

"She deserves it, not me," Clemons said of his mom, 61. "One time, I was pouting on the bench about something. She marched on to the field and grabbed me and she pointed up to the stands and said: "This is where you'll be every week if you're going to have this kind of sportsmanship."

"From the time I was 8 to the time I was 18, she only missed one of my games."

Ann Bryant will fly from Dunedin in September to be part of Clemons' induction in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

The Class of 2008 is both impressive and puzzling. But this is what we've come to expect from the Canadian Hall of Fame. Doug Flutie and Mike Pringle, both eligible for the first time, were slam dunks. Flutie was arguably the single-greatest performer in Canadian football history. When Pringle left the game, no one had rushed for more yards and no one had scored more touchdowns.

"It's like three main events," said Angelo Mosca, the former wrestling promoter and Hall of Fame player.

And then there's John Bonk. How he managed to get in this group is curious. He may have been a great offensive lineman but, then again, how do you quantify that? And he has been eligible for the Hall for 20 years and has been passed over, yes even for Rocco Romano (the Clark Gillies of the football Hall). So while Bonk is a nice story, a Hamilton boy who grew up not far from what was then Civic Stadium and sold hot dogs while dreaming of one day being a Ticat, he plays the part of "one of these things is not like the other" in this Hall group.

CREAM OF THE CROP

There is the best player in CFL history. The best known player, perhaps, in history. And the most prolific rusher. And, with no slight intended -- John Bonk.

Michael Clemons never expected to become a football star. He actually had his life all worked out after a couple of NFL attempts went awry and before Ralph Sazio called and asked him to come to Toronto.

"I was interning at Honeywell," Clemons says. "They were going to pay for me to get my MBA. I had my life pretty well planned out."

Then came the call from Sazio and everything changed. He went from Argos special-teams star to running back, to receiver, to coach, to preacher, to personality, to salesman, to after-dinner speaker, to CEO of the Argonauts, and now to the Hall -- and after that almost anywhere he chooses to go.

If he cares that he was passed over year after year for reasons never explained, he doesn't let on. He never made a big deal about it, we did. "To me," he said, "success in life is not what you achieve. It's how many people you impact."

And those are numbers that continue to grow long after Pinball Clemons stopped running the ball.