When you think of a stereotypical football fan, you probably don’t picture Lori Bursey. Articulate and polite, with well-coiffed black hair and a management job at a community college, she has a bearing more reminiscent of a business executive than a beer-swilling good ol’ girl.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who loves the Argonauts more than she does.
From the time a group of friends brought her to her first game as a 12-year-old some 30 years ago, she’s been hooked. Over the years, she’s progressed from meeting the players and asking for autographs to barbecuing for them at practices to helping found their fan club.
She can describe Grey Cups in detail – including the 1991 game in Winnipeg when, as a born-and-bred Torontonian unaccustomed to the prairie cold, she had to warm her feet under a bathroom dryer at half-time – and rhyme off team trivia as if she’s reciting the alphabet.
“We’re not mighty in numbers,” she says of Argos fans, “but we’re mighty in spirit.”
Indeed, the Boatmen’s supporters find themselves in the minority among sports lovers in Toronto, and football in the city rarely has the all-consuming verve that it musters in smaller centres.
Take, for instance, the Argos’ rivals for the 100th Grey Cup, to be played for in Toronto Sunday. On game days in Calgary, Stampeders fans pack trains from downtown to suburban McMahon Stadium. Hours before the game, they swarm nearby parking lots to tailgate, setting up couches and barbecues on the asphalt.
“We mix with the opposite side’s fans, and we call them in to share our beef on a bun or pierogies or chili,” says Stamps supporter Dave Kolochuk, 49. “Calgary likes its traditions.”
But it’s precisely Argo fans’ exceptionalism that motivates them to back the team so fervently. They like the fact that the players are approachable – regular guys earning regular-guy salaries. (Well, sort of – the quarterback on the team earns $400,000, a pittance in pro-sports terms, and it goes down from there.) And they like that the team’s devotees are true lovers of the league and not bandwagon-jumpers.
“If you’re a fan of the Argos, it’s because you’re really a fan, not because it’s the thing to do,” says Andrew Dundas, a tall, 40-year-old investment banker. “You’re not doing it to be cool, because it’s not cool.”
And the faithfuls’ small numbers lead to a tight-knit community. Mr. Dundas, for instance, has made friends with the other season-ticket holders who sit in his section. Among them are Justine Bertrand, 31, and her father, Stu Griffin.
Ms. Bertrand’s fandom was inherited from her grandfather, and she remembers dragging her dad along to a game when she was a kid. They’ve been going ever since. She’s even passed the tradition on to her own six-year-old son, Aedan.
The Argos’ closeness to their fans certainly helped foster their support: Ms. Bertrand remembers an occasion when she was watching a practice from the stands as a teen, and star quarterback Doug Flutie took the time to sit down with her and chat.
“It’s the fact that it’s a Canadian league,” she says. “CFL guys are really accessible.”
Bob Johnson has certainly seen that accessibility. In 2004, the last time the team won the Cup, players invited him into their post-game party and let him drink beer from the bowl.
“You don’t have a bunch of millionaire prima donnas playing in the league,” he says.
Demographically, there don’t seem to be any common denominators among Argos fans, unlike the Instagram-loving hipsters who have embraced baseball’s Blue Jays in recent years, or the multicultural young professionals who populate the bleachers at Raptors’ games.
Argos’ support cuts across generations and occupations – from childcare worker Ms. Bertrand to Mr. Johnson, 50, who repairs infrastructure for the city of Vaughan, to Tim Roberts and his partner, Carla Roselle, who work for a suburban fire department.
Mr. Roberts and Ms. Roselle have their rituals, attending the Labour Day Classic in Calgary every year, where they are often the lone Argos fans. At the Grey Cup, they reunite with friends from across the country.
Then there’s Steve Hayman. A married, 53-year-old father of two teenage boys, he lives in the affluent Toronto suburb of Oakville and works as a software engineer for Apple.
During his spare time in the summer, he leads one of the Argos’ new traditions: a fan-based marching band. A trombonist in his university band, Mr. Hayman started Argonotes in 1994. Today, his group plays in the north-end zone at every game, and holds a rally and mini-concert outside Gate 2 of the Rogers Centre afterward.