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Former Argonauts quarterback Doug Flutie salutes the crowd during a ceremony honouring his CFL career before a game between his former team and the visiting Ottawa Redblacks on Monday at Toronto’s BMO Field.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Hundreds of autograph-seekers crowded into a line that snaked through the Ontario Place parking lot and ran along Toronto's Lake Shore Boulevard. They all stopped to stare for a moment as the quarterback they had lined up to see suddenly stood up from the crowded autograph table and came into focus.

A spry, 54-year-old Doug Flutie put down his Sharpie, clutched a football to his chest, looked out into the crowd of fans, singled one out in the distance and snickered to amused onlookers.

"He's got two beers!" Flutie cried out with a laugh.

Also: Toronto Argonauts name former quarterback Doug Flutie to all-time team

He looked at a fan bounding around among the tents, trucks and barbecues of the tailgate, and the famous Toronto Argonauts quarterback grinned, shrugged his shoulders and tossed the guy a perfect spiral. The fan juggled his drinks and hauled in the picturesque pass from the three-time Grey Cup champ, and a sea of fans in blue whooped with applause.

Flutie – widely considered the greatest player in Canadian Football League history – was making a rare appearance in Toronto on Monday night as part of the team's celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1996 and 1997 back-to-back Grey Cup championships. It was held before the Argonauts' dramatic 27-24 win over the Ottawa Redblacks, all part of the club's ongoing efforts to boost attendance and rekindle a love that once existed in Toronto for the Argos.

Flutie sat on the tail end of that long pregame autograph table full of his old teammates, shoulder-to-shoulder with his gregarious running back, Michael "Pinball" Clemons, the two elbowing one another boyishly. Flutie posed for countless selfies and signed everything from mini-helmets to footballs, old No. 2 Argos jerseys and even Boston College Flutie sweaters.

Then, inside the stadium before the game, his name and number were added to the all-time Argos banner that hangs from the rafters above the south end zone as a video played a Flutie highlight reel full of stunning passes and speedy touchdown runs. Fans were given Doug Flutie bobbleheads and offered tickets for the throwback price of $19.97 a pair.

The brief ceremony took place before a sparse house as fans were still slowly mulling around outside the gates.

"I have such a great affection for the city of Toronto," said Flutie in an Argos jersey and jeans, still lean and athletic-looking and sporting the same signature wispy mullet haircut. "It was a very memorable time and the most fun I ever had playing football."

At halftime, about 20 alumni from those two memorable Argos squads came out to be recognized alongside Flutie, including Duane Dmytryshyn, Reggie Givens, Adrion Smith and Paul Masotti. Also on hand was the family of coach Don Matthews, who recently passed away. Many of the players had reunited for a dinner the night before and also gathered to recreate their iconic '97 Grey Cup photo.

"It was the one thing our fans have been adamant about since Day 1 – they have asked to maintain that connection with the past," said Michael Copeland, Argonauts president and CEO. "We wanted to make sure when we did this, we did it the right way. So our first big step in that regard was to bring the '96 and '97 Grey Cup champs out. I think you see the fans responding. So much of sports is about emotion, and if you can help people rekindle memories, that's important."

The Argos, who moved outdoors to newly renovated BMO Field from cavernous and oversized Rogers Centre at the start of last season, have struggled to fill seats. Their first two home games of the season drew 13,583 and 11,219 fans, respectively.

The team came into the night 2-2, with the combo of Ricky Ray-to-S.J. Green red hot, facing the reigning Grey Cup champion Redblacks. The special game still drew just 15,801 fans.

The Argos filled the Rogers Centre in 2012 for the 100th Grey Cup, which they won. But momentum didn't carry over.

Flutie represents the Argos' heyday. He played in Toronto for two seasons and led his team to Grey Cup victories in both, garnered back-to-back CFL most outstanding player awards along with Grey Cup MVP honours.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound quarterback was often overlooked or sidelined by NFL teams for being undersized, and his improvisational talents were often stifled by coaches or offences that didn't suit his gifts. But in the CFL he felt liberated, as coaches frequently let him call his own plays. He could masterfully scramble, ad-lib and move offences down the field for epic game-winning drives. Today, he still holds the Argos' single-season records for most passing yards (5,720 in 1996), most pass completions (434 in 1996) and most passing touchdowns (47 in 1997).

The Argos hope to find similar magic again.

The CFL’s new commissioner says the market for Canadian football in Toronto needs to be rebuilt 'brick by brick.' Randy Ambrosie replaces Jeffrey Orridge, who resigned last month.

The Canadian Press

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