Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons stood out as a CFL player despite the fact he stood only five-foot-six.
But there was more to his story and his on-field success that resulted in a Most Outstanding Player award in 1990 than his lack of size.
Always personable and humble, Clemons expressed his take on what made him one of the most famous and popular players in CFL history, and later related his story as the guest speaker during the Red Deer Catholic Education Foundation fundraiser gala Wednesday at the Black Knight Inn.
“I think the most special thing about me is that I wasn’t that special,” he said prior to the fund-raiser. “While people I think really got excited about my style of play and the different things like that, the fact is I was born to a single parent in modest accommodations in Florida.
“We were in a very modest situation. My mother’s mom died when she was five and her grandmother died when she was seven. She was raised by her great grandmother, who died around the time I was born. So it is the simplicity of it all . . . being able to combine all of that with the fact that I was just not the prototype player.
“When it comes to football, guys like me generally don’t survive, and so it is really a tale of just doing your best and giving your best as you go along. As you do that you are afforded opportunity and so many great people come around to help you achieve.”
Clemons was a standout running back/receiver/kick returner with the Toronto Argonauts for most of his 12-year CFL career. He was a three-time all-star and holds the league’s record for most combined all-time regular-season yards — 25,438.
Yet, to this day, he prefers to give a bulk of the credit to his former teammates and coaches.
“You don’t get to that level by yourself,” he insisted. “A big part of me is giving your best, but another strong part is that my mom (Anna Marie Bryant) was such an influence, as were all the other people around me. Don Matthews, for example, was a great influence as a coach.
“You don’t do it by yourself and you understand that you don’t have to try and do things by yourself. Yes, you do your best, but you don’t have to do it alone. I think my story is certainly one of the underdog, but also to say it’s not how much you have as giving what you’ve got.”
Clemons was appointed as the interim head coach of the Argos in 2000 as a replacement for John Huard, who resigned after compiling a 1-6-1 record to start the season. The team won six of its remaining regular-season games under Clemons’ guidance and he had the ‘interim’ tag removed from his title, despite the fact he was originally reluctant to accept the job because he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Clemons was promoted to team president a year later, then returned as head coach when his successor, Gary Etcheverry, was fired in 2002. He held various other posts with the organization after stepping down as coach in 2007 and is now vice-chair of the team, his duties including providing input and assistance with key sales and corporate partner programs, significant community initiatives and media relations.
He also communicates with the players on a once-in-awhile basis.
“I became the vice-chairman and I’m not sure what he does,” Clemons joked.
“But I do love the position. It is amazing. I get a chance to work with the guys a little bit. The coach invites me to speak to the guys a couple of times a year and that’s my involvement — doing some mentoring with the players.”
It’s the community side of the position that works best with Clemons.
“We’ve been so lucky. I’m an American by birth and a Canadian by choice, as a family we love it here,” he said. “The community part is really a thank you for the tremendous opportunities that we’ve had in this country. I’ll never be able to repay the community or the country for the opportunities I’ve been given, but we’ll certainly work at trying.”
Concerning the recent CFL labour problems, with the players talking possible strike as rookie camps loom and the league offering a nine per cent salary cap raise Wednesday morning, Clemons admitted he hasn’t paid close attention to the proceedings.
“I probably almost purposely haven’t been too close to the situation,” he said.
He did, however, offer an opinion while leaning towards the players.
“The league itself has a need for infrastructure upgrades and some other different things, so it’s really about trying to find a balance,” he said. “There’s no question the players deserve a raise and the league can not actually pay the players as much as they deserve.
“Based on those things, it comes down to what is reasonable. I think over time the players have had pretty modest salaries by and large. If we were going to be aggressive, I’d like to see the league be aggressive on behalf of the players this time around.
“We want to be smart and be prudent as we move forward, no doubt about that. But it would be nice to see the league — and maybe they have — put their best foot forward for players who have really made this league strong and viable while making a lot of sacrifices.
“There are many great people on the other side who help to create stability in our league and we certainly don’t ever want to compromise or neglect those people in any way for what they’ve done. But I think we are in a time now when if we err, we err on the side of the players and find a way to make it right.”