I’m too young to remember the 1971 Argonauts. Actually, scratch that: I didn’t even exist in 1971. And yet, I still feel connected to that team because of my dad.
My dad hadn’t been a huge Argonauts fan before 1971. He would watch on occasion, and his favourite player had always been Dave “Super” Mann. But Mann had retired after 1970, and the Argos of the time weren’t much to get inspired about. Not only was the team in the middle of what turned out to be a 31-year Grey Cup drought, but going into 1971 they hadn’t even made an appearance in the Grey Cup Final since 1960.
Leo Cahill had been coaching the club since 1967, and had inspired some hope with shrewd personnel moves that led to a surprising East Final appearance in 1968, ending in defeat at the hands of Ottawa. The playoff run of 1968 was only a tease, and the Argos slipped back in the standings, finishing 1970 with an 8-6 record. The pieces were there for success in 1971, but the team just couldn’t put it together.
It was then that Cahill and owner John Basset turned south of the border to find the final pieces. A running back named Leon McQuay was lured north from the University of Tampa. Defensive tackle Jim Stillwagon, a star from Ohio State, was picked 5th overall in the NFL Draft by Green Bay and spurned the Packers in favour of Toronto. And down in Miami, one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was growing frustrated with prolonged contract negotiations with the Dolphins. So Cahill scooped up the future star, named Joe Theismann, for $50,000 a season.
Suddenly, the sorrow of the past was gone for Argos fans. The new imports were coming up north as the final pieces of the puzzle for the Argonauts return to glory. It was in 1971 that my dad’s family first purchased Argos season tickets, to be a part of the excitement surrounding the team. The star imports created a buzz around the Argonauts that swept not just Toronto, but across the entire country. Even the United States took notice thanks to college stars Theismann and Stillwagon; my dad tells me a Sports Illustrated feature on American CFL players that focused on the Argonauts created a stir around the club (the article, as my dad relates, is notable for mentioning Jim Stillwagon’s Canadian flag tattoo on his butt).
On the field, all the excitement and buzz leading up to 1971 – not to mention the money invested in the American stars – paid off. The team coach Cahill had assembled over nearly five seasons finally came together, finishing with a 10-4 record and winning the East Division to make their first Grey Cup Final in 11 years. Leon McQuay was a dominating running back, and Theismann had one of the finest seasons of his career on either side of the border. The veteran players around the three import stars were key to the success. And just like that, Argo fever took over Toronto.
Of course, we all know what happened next. On that soggy turf in Vancouver, the great Leon McQuay fumbled the ball away on a play that is still disputed to this day, and Calgary would hold on to win the Grey Cup and end their own 23-year championship drought.
My dad, like the rest of Toronto, was crushed by the defeat. He’s reminded me of Leon McQuay many times over my life. For many devoted Argo fans, the name Leon McQuay is a name that’s placed for eternity alongside Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, Don Cherry, Fred Snodgrass (look that one up!), and so many other “goats” in sports history whose names will live on, but for all the wrong reasons.
Not my dad, though. Ever the optimist, my dad has always reminded me that after McQuay’s fumble, Calgary actually gave the ball back to the Argonauts. The Argos would have had a final chance to put the Stampeders away with just under two minutes left, but punt returner Harry Abofs accidentally kicked the punt out of bounds while trying to corral the punt on the wet field.
The loss was heartbreaking for fans and players alike, but that didn’t stop the Argo buzz from continuing into 1972. Once the season started, however, it was an unmitigated disaster and the excitement surrounding the club gave way to disappointment. The Argos slipped to 3-11 and coach Cahill lost his job. McQuay was traded to Calgary in 1973 and his career never recovered after the fumble. Joe Theismann had a monster 1973 season, and the Argos returned to the playoffs but lost the East Semi-Final to Montreal.
After that season, Theismann would leave the CFL and spend the rest of his stellar pro career with the Washington Redskins. From 1972 through 1981 the Argonauts did not have a winning record, and only made the playoffs twice in that span. It wasn’t until 1983 that the Argos finally brought the Grey Cup back to Toronto.
But despite what was basically a 1-year run in the middle of a long championship drought, that 1971 Toronto Argonauts team has remained a great memory for Argos fans young and old. The way my dad describes it, the intensity and passion of the Exhibition Stadium crowds that season made football fun again. Toronto was at the centre of the CFL universe, and with the Blue Jays still five years from even being founded it was the Argonauts who owned Toronto during the summer months.
The impact of the 1971 Argonauts, even though they couldn’t finish the Grey Cup run, is still felt today. I see it when my dad talks about the team and he remembers that season so fondly. It obviously had a profound impact on many fans moving forward as well, because my dad stayed with the team through the rest of the disastrous 1970s and was there to proudly cheer on his Argonauts when the Grey Cup drought was broken in 1983. When he talks about the 1971 Argonauts and the atmosphere at Exhibition Stadium, it makes me feel like I was there for that season.
This weekend the 1971 Argonauts return to Toronto for a reunion and to be honoured at Rogers Centre during the Argonauts 2012 home opener. Not all of them will be here, unfortunately, including Leon McQuay who passed away in 1995. But Joe Theismann will be in town, and so will Leo Cahill and Jim Stillwagon and Bill Symons and so many others. These are names that still resonate with Argonauts fans everywhere, and many Toronto sports fans. It’s a chance for people like my dad to say thank you to all of them for that magical season, and to remember the joy they brought to Toronto.
And maybe it’s a good omen that this is the year our beloved 1971 team is honoured. Maybe the passion of 1971 will come back in 2012 as our Argonauts look to break a Grey Cup drought. And hopefully the 1971 Argos will once again show us what it means to be an Argonaut. And hopefully, just like their forefathers in 1971, the 2012 Argonauts will bring football back to the forefront of Toronto sports.