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.
The band isn’t funded by the team; it’s all run by the fans. Mr. Hayman is self-effacing about his musical skills – “I’m a computer guy. I learned how to conduct by reading Wikipedia” – but the activity is a major part of his life. One of his sons is involved, and he even met his wife through the band. (She plays piccolo, her son plays drum and her daughter occasionally joins in with a clarinet.)
So far, the Grey Cup has certainly received more attention than it has in decades in the city. Passersby have stopped to take in a zipline (temporarily installed at City Hall) or play pick-up games on a makeshift gridiron erected in Nathan Phillips Square. Stampeders’ fans held the city rapt Thursday as they paraded a horse through a downtown bank headquarters, a bar and the tony Royal York hotel.
And earlier in the week, thousands turned out for an evening pep rally at Dundas Square, where Mr. Hayman’s band worked up the crowd before the team took the stage. The players’ total lack of pretension showed: Many whipped out their BlackBerries and iPads to snap photos of the rally, as if they were just as awed to be there as the fans.
“It’s amazing. I knew it was going to be big, but I didn’t know it would be like this,” Mr. Hayman says. “The rally was the most fun I think I’ve ever had.”
Both he and Ms. Bursey agree the challenge for the team is to keep the momentum going once the Grey Cup is gone. Unlike in smaller centres, where football is the only game in town, it always faces a struggle in a city as busy and diverse as Toronto.
“It’s so easy to be a Riders’ fan,” Ms. Bursey says. “I think the best fans in the CFL are the Argo fans, because they stick by the team, they support the team, when you’re butting up against all the other teams in Toronto. They don’t care that they’re not part of this mass of people. They just love the team.”
An in-game – and in-party – glossary
On the gridiron, it’s when the defenders rush the quarterback.
On the streets, it’s what traffic and transit will look like Sunday before the game. Although the stadium is located off Spadina Avenue, just a few blocks from the Gardiner Expressway, nearby streets will likely be jammed. As well, several are closed until 5 a.m. Monday: Front Street West, University Avenue to John Street; John Street, Wellington Street West to Front Street West; and Simcoe Street, Wellington Street West to Station Street. GO, the regional rail network, is offering a special, $10 day pass and running one extra train in either direction and every one of its seven lines. The TTC, meanwhile, is selling a $10.50 commemorative pass. It’s also encouraging people to use the St. Andrew subway station or King streetcar, since Union subway station is in the middle of renovations.
On the gridiron, it’s a long pass made in the dying seconds of a game in a desperate, final attempt to win.
On the streets, it’s the final option for desperate fans trying to get into the game: scalpers. They tend to congregate around Front Street and Blue Jays way, where a pedestrian bridge slopes up from the street towards the stadium. You may also find them along Bremner Boulevard, south of the arena. Toronto police however warn against buying a ticket from an unknown agent or agencies.
On the gridiron, it’s a kick from centre that starts each half, and re-starts the action after a team scores.
On the streets, it’s the big parade that will launch Grey Cup day. It starts at Varsity Stadium on the University of Toronto campus, the site of many Grey Cups past, at 12:30 p.m. The parade, which carries the cup to the game, will head east to Bloor, down Yonge Street, east on Queen and through the financial district to the stadium. Game starts at 6 p.m.
On the gridiron, it’s the chance a team has after scoring a touchdown to add extra points.
On the street, businesses will be hoping to translate the game into dollars. If you’re so inclined to throw them a pass, you can imbibe beer at a number of establishments along the north side of Front Street, between University Avenue and Spadina. If you’re inclined to squeeze in a little shopping, the Eaton Centre is just across the street from a makeshift gridiron on Dundas Square.
Line of scrimmage
On the gridiron, it’s where both teams line up before a play.
On the street, it’s where fans will line up to party down before the game. There’s a pancake breakfast Saturday at 11 a.m. at Nathan Phillips Square, hosted by Calgary Stampeders’ fans. The Double Blue bash, for the Argonauts, is at 2 p.m. that day at the Metro Convention Centre. On Sunday, the centre will play host to an afternoon pre-game party, starting at 1 p.m.