O'Leary: Pinball processes no 2020 season and eyes up 2021
If you’ve ever seen him at an Argos game, or run into him somewhere in Toronto, you know what life was like for Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons.
The Argos GM (once their coach, once a hall of fame player, forever radiating good vibes to those around him) is a magnet for human interaction. When people see him, they yell out his nickname. They beeline toward him to say hello. They want to shake hands, they want to hug.
For the last five months, that’s had to be put on pause.
“I am a converted extrovert,” Clemons says over the phone on Wednesday, a good 48 hours after it was announced that there would be no 2020 CFL season. The joy in his voice is the same, his ability to lift spirits and generate smiles as strong as it ever was. But the world is a different place right now.
“The big thing for me is the awkwardness, right? How do you make people feel comfortable? Some people want to hug you. Some people don’t want to be anywhere around you,” he laughed.
“So, it’s awkward because you’ve sort of learned how to make people feel comfortable and in this environment it’s just, it’s so hard. That’s the biggest challenge for me.”
When he’s not out and being recognized as Pinball, Clemons says he’s actually a fairly quiet person and something of an introvert. As he was growing up in Dunedin, Fla., he said he’d speak up when things needed to be said. Sports changed that for him. He started playing football when he was eight and by the time he was in high school he was a team captain. Leadership roles came to him and he learned to embrace it. He’s focused on the positives that have come through the last five months, like the increased time with his family.
Getting a feel for the social norms of a new reality has been difficult, especially for a person that thrived in the old reality.
“I want people to feel warm, acknowledged, to understand that they’re more important than I am and sometimes that’s hard to do in this environment. That part is hard to get used to,” he said.
“I think I’m getting a little bit better at it, but it’s hard to get used to, this normal.”
That applies doubly after the CFL and its fans learned this week of how the rest of this year will look. The league announced on Monday that its attempt at a shortened season wouldn’t be happening and that it’s now focused on a comeback season in 2021.
“We really have tried to maintain perspective,” he said of Monday’s bad news.
“The first thing for me that I think of is we’d be remiss if we did not acknowledge the impact of this pandemic and the sacrifice that so many have made and the health challenges and those who have succumbed to those challenges and those that continue to be on the front line.
“When I think of the season in respect to that, I must acknowledge what we’re going through right before I dwell on what is a lost season. If we’re going to lose the season, this is the kind of reason why.”
Clemons said he feels for the players. He’s spoken with a few this week, but wants to see them return to a healthy CFL next spring.
“(The players) are the ones that make our league great. They are our stars, they do the work in the community and they’re still effective as young men and as professionals,” he said.
“The economic challenge that goes alongside this makes it doubly difficult.”
As teams assess the eight months in front of them, they’ll try to make the most of these circumstances. Clemons points out that he was hired as GM in October of last year and while he and VP of player personnel, John Murphy, also hired at the same time, put in vigorous effort overhauling the coaching staff, roster and identity of their team, they’ll try to use the cancelled season as an extended opportunity. In Montreal, GM Danny Maciocia was hired in January and spoke this week of taking the same approach.
“We thought we made some major steps over this off-season but we feel that now maybe we can go even a little further and maybe we can be even more competitive when this starts again,” Clemons said.
“We know this is not an overnight thing but we do feel that we’ve got time now to make more headway.”
After a long summer of waiting and getting the news that no one in the CFL wanted, Clemons will give his coaching and scouting staff some downtime. They’ll recharge, see their families and reconvene after Labour Day — such a crucial part of the CFL schedule for generations now — with a focus on the spring of 2021.
“For me, I really try to compartmentalize this,” he said. “While it’s difficult, I can’t control that part of it (the season being cancelled). Immediately, we start moving toward, ‘What can I do?’
“Can we begin to put ourselves in an even more competitive position by the time we get to 2021 and if so, how does that happen? And so, the mechanisms start working. The reality is my family’s healthy, we’ve been able to help youth through our foundation. We’ve been able to reach out to our immediate community. At this point, the shift is real. I gave myself 24 hours to kind of sort through it and now 2021, here we go.”