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Former Toronto Argonaut and Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann looks over a photo of himself brought in by a fan during an autograph signing in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser)
Former Toronto Argonaut and Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann looks over a photo of himself brought in by a fan during an autograph signing in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser)

JEFF BLAIR

Hating the Argos was once all the rage Add to ...

You had to be there. You had to be in Winnipeg or Regina or even Ottawa in the early 1970s when the Toronto Argonauts came to town, and then you had to hate them. You didn’t pity them as representatives of a championship-starved city; you certainly didn’t tell the world that you’d cut a $1-million cheque from the league office to help the Argos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to market themselves; or give them a franchise quarterback for squat.

All of which suited Joe Theismann just fine. As a well-known broadcaster and personality, he is now very much here for your pleasure. But as a quarterback – no, as the quarterback of the Argos? He loved your hate. They all did.

“People didn’t like us, which is great because you hate to be a team going into a city where people are either apathetic or they like you – because that means you’re good for their football team,” Theismann said Monday, before taking part in a memorabilia signing at a Vaughn-based memorabilia dealer. “And we were neither. We were sort of arrogant ... cocky ... an egotistical group of guys who knew we could play. I’ve always believed a team reflects its coaches personality and if you look through all the 100 years of the Grey Cup, you won’t find a personality like Leo Cahill’s.”

Theismann will be in Canada on Sunday, but not in Toronto. He has a speaking engagement in Vancouver that day, and Tuesday morning he will return home for Thanksgiving. But his name will be mentioned in the lead-up to Sunday’s Grey Cup game at the Rogers Centre, given all the chatter surrounding the 100th anniversary of the CFL championship, because the 1971 Argos really are, as they will be described on a TSN documentary that will air this week, The Greatest Team That Never Won.

It is a mark of their arrogance that most of those Argos players would agree with the title. They wouldn’t be wrong. One hundred Grey Cups and chances are good that anybody over the age of 50 would put down the ’71 game as one of the most memorable. Yes, those Argos are the team that lost the 1971 Grey Cup 14-11 to the Calgary Stampeders – you’ll remember Leon McQuay’s fumble, and now we know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper also cried that day – but they were also the team that Sports Illustrated’s Mark Mulvoy profiled in August of that season; a conduit for American readers to the CFL’s rich tradition.

Theismann was the Notre Dame quarterback who was fed up with the way the Miami Dolphins kept fooling around with his signing bonus, electing instead to sign with the Argos. Just to make sure, then-Argos owner John Bassett released details of the contract before Theismann had a chance to personally inform the Dolphins Hall of Fame coach, Don Shula. McQuay skipped his senior year at the University of Tampa; defensive lineman Jim Stillwagon joined them, after deciding being shifted to linebacker was no way for the Green Bay Packers to treat the fifth pick overall.

Greg Barton was a quarterback who was traded from the Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles for three draft picks. Barton would share time with Theismann, a move that didn’t sit well until Cahill explained his reasoning: he wasn’t worried about Theismann’s ego or confidence. That wasn’t going to change regardless of what he did to him. But Cahill couldn’t afford to lose Barton, in case Theismann became injured.

Theismann sees similarities between those Argos teams and the Washington Redskins teams that he would take to back-to-back Super Bowls, winning in 1982 and losing in 1983. “Characters with character,” is one of his favourite phrases to describe the two. They were also coached by two larger-than-life personalities: Joe Gibbs and Cahill. And like Gibbs, Cahill could coach. He was more than just a song-and-dance man.

“Leo had a real eye for talent, but he was also a great salesman,” Theismann said of Cahill. “He had to be one of the greatest salesmen I’ve seen to convince all those guys to come up here. Seriously: how do you convince all those guys who’d accomplished so much in college to come to Canada?”

Ah, for the glory days: when you could hate the Argos and not feel bad about it.

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