To celebrate the 100th Grey Cup, TSN presents ‘Engraved on a Nation,’ a series of documentaries highlighting eight indelible moments in the history of the CFL’s ultimate prize. TSN.ca producer Shane McNeil presents a feature story on how each of these stories was brought to the screen.
Originally published on TSN.ca – November 22, 2012.
The city of Toronto was beset on all sides with change in the late 1960s.
As Mayor Allan Lamport was seeking the removal of hippies and young intellectuals from the downtown neighbourhood of Yorkville to make it a safe-haven for the city’s affluent minority, Toronto Argonauts head coach Leo Cahill was busy building up an elite class of his own.
The Argonauts – who had won a Canadian Football League record 10 Grey Cups at the time of Cahill’s appointment in 1967 – were in the midst of a serious Grey Cup drought. The team had not won a Grey Cup nor appeared in a Grey Cup game since its last victory, all the way back in 1952.
Seeking to end 15 years of misery in the CFL’s largest market, Cahill went about creating a team loaded with superstar talent that would capture Toronto’s imagination within the next five years.
The team he created would reach its pinnacle in 1971.
Cahill’s bunch would thrill the City and bring the team back to the Grey Cup final against a Calgary Stampeders team that had made two of the previous three Grey Cup games.
However, despite making it within 11 yards of a potential Championship-clinching touchdown in the game’s dying minutes, the Argos would lose the game 14-11 and the roster would implode shortly thereafter.
High profile additions such as future NFL MVP Joe Theismann and future College Football Hall-of-Famer Jim Stillwagon would be gone within five years, the Argos’ Championship aspirations along with them.
That team is the focus of Christie Callan-Jones’ film “The Greatest Team that Never Won,” the eighth and final installment in TSN’s Engraved on a Nation documentary series.
Callan-Jones believes the Argos rise came at the perfect time for a city that was itching to shed its ‘Toronto, the Good’ image.
“I think this team sort of mirrored how Toronto was changing,” Callan-Jones said. “I think people in Toronto saw, in them, something that they wanted to be
like and aspire to.”
“They bucked the system, they had a bit of ‘we are going to be who we want to be’ attitude. I think it was an attitude Torontonians were big on developing and I think they looked up to these players.”
The relationship, Callan-Jones believes, was not a one-sided affair.
The love a group of mostly imported American football players developed for the city remained apparent, even as the group reconvened for a 40th anniversary celebration at the Argos’ 2012 home opener.
“From talking to these players it really was a symbiotic relationship,” Callan-Jones said. “There really was a mutual affection from the players towards the city and its fans.”
The Argos, led by the likes of Theismann and Stillwagon as well as a cast of colourful talents like linebacker Gene Mack, running backs Bill Symons and Dave Raimey and receivers Dick Thornton and Mike Eben played with a bravado that would endear them to Toronto fans.
The ’71 Argos were a team that embodied the rock n’ roll spirit surging through Toronto in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Callan-Jones channels the spirit of that team and that time by channeling rock n’ roll films of the past with an opening that pays homage to Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” and a late-60s rave-up sequence that’s equal parts “Blow Up” and “Goin’ Down the Road”.
The team lived hard, but carried an off-field-cockiness into every snap.
The team’s confidence would make the late-game collapse when it mattered most all the more painful.
“It’s sort of a Greek tragedy,” said Callan-Jones. “They rise, they come out of nothing, they get right to the end and then their own hubris kind of kicks them in the ass and they lose.”
Win or lose, the team’s cocky approach would not go over well with rival fans.
“There’s always something to be said for a good villain,” said Callan-Jones. “They were so confident going into that Grey Cup game. So it really was a bit of a reality check for them.”
The memory of the fall might instill a measure of glee into rival fans to this day, an emotion Callan-Jones hopes the film will stir up.
“It’s a way of seeing Toronto getting knocked off its pedestal and the rest of the country, you know, they always like that.”
However, the heartbreak of having victory snatched from waiting arms is a feeling that fans of almost every CFL team can relate to.
Whether it’s seeing a certain touchdown evaporate when your star running back fumbles in the red zone or a last second penalty for too many men or seeing a pass bounce of your receiver’s chest on a potential game-tying touchdown, heartbreak is a feeling that unifies many of the CFL’s fan-bases.
“That’s the essence of why people love sports and sports films and sports stories,” said Callan-Jones. “There’s always an element of tragedy. I think people can identify with that. It makes it real and it makes it human.”
As for the ’71 Argos, despite having a rapid rise and fall from the CFL’s heights, it’s the personality of such an outlandish group that makes them endure the passage of time.
“It’s unique in society to applaud someone for not quite getting it done,” Theismann said in the film. “But, when you look at the group of guys, you say to yourself: ‘how can you not tell this story?'”
Theismann weighs the loss of the Grey Cup with the victory in the hearts of the fans, calling the ’71 Argos “a team that almost won a championship, but certainly brought a tonne of joy to a city.”
The team forged memories for the fans on the field, but also built a unit that would remain familial 40 years later.
“One thing that stuck out to me when we did all the interviews was how close and tight-knit this team was,” said Callan-Jones. “What better way to tell this story than to bring these guys back to the city where a lot of them sort of came of age as men and as football players?”
“They hadn’t seen each other in 40 years and they just picked up right where they left off with stories and the true affection these men have for each other, it really was incredible to witness.”