Argos go from last place to Grey Cup game

A year after going 5-13, Argonauts coach Marc Trestman and general manager Jim Popp have orchestrated a major turnaround to put Toronto into the Grey Cup game.

Toronto will play for CFL title after going in 5-13 in 2016

Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray (15) hoists the trophy with teammates after beating the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL Eastern final. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

As the Eastern Division championship trophy was awarded to Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray and the rest of the Argos, Marc Trestman and Jim Popp embraced in the end zone with a hug that lasted for an eternity.

In what turned out to be a heart-stopping finish, the Argonauts marched 67 yards down the field to score a late touchdown and take a 25-21 lead over the Saskatchewan Roughriders with 20 seconds left in the game. They'd hold on to win the East final.

"That was unbelievable. My gosh. What a game," Popp said, trying to catch his breath.

Trestman the coach, Popp the general manager — together they've orchestrated a remarkably rapid turnaround in Toronto after winning Grey Cups together in the same roles in Montreal in 2009 and 2010.

General manager Jim Popp, left, and coach Marc Trestman helped the Toronto Argonauts reach the Grey Cup a year after a last-place finish. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

After a 5-13 season, an off-season of turmoil and questioning, the two took over the reigns in Toronto on Feb. 27. With just a couple of months to prepare for the season, Trestman and Popp got to work.

At times this season it looked like things could go sideways for the Argos, injuries and a three-game losing streak had people questioning whether Toronto could make a run this year. But Popp never questioned it. Now the team is heading to the Grey Cup.

Cody Fajardo's one-yard touchdown run capped a game-winning drive by Ricky Ray, as Toronto advances to the Grey Cup game with a 25-21 win over Saskatchewan 2:37

"I promise you I imagined this," he said. "We still have one more game. This is a hard game to win. To get that Grey Cup. We have an unbelievable group of guys. Great coaching staff. The entire organization."

Putting the 'Wild' in Wilder Jr.

The Argos season was on the ropes with just over a minute left in the game. Down three points and facing third down and five yards to go, Toronto turned to the league's Most Outstanding Rookie candidate, running back James Wilder Jr.

"We ran that same play in practice all week. It was the same exact play. Coach drew it up and we trusted the process," Wilder Jr. said.

He rumbled for 22 yards on the play taking the team down to Saskatchewan's 18-yard line. They would go on to score and win from there.

"That's what you love," Wilder Jr. said. "When you're a player and it's on the line, you want the ball in your hands. When coach called that play, it touched my heart because it shows how much coach trusts me."

After the game in the locker room, Wilder Jr. swapped his Argos jersey for his dad's throwback Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey.

After the game in the locker room, James Wilder Jr. swapped his Argos jersey for his dad’s throwback Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

His dad, James Wilder Sr., was an NFL running back who played for the Buccaneers. James has had the jersey since he was a kid and had to put it on after the game. It's been two years since Wilder Sr. has watched his son play football. He'll be at the Grey Cup.

"My father hasn't seen me play in two years," Wilder Jr. said. "Him being able to come to the Grey Cup game is everything to me."

Ricky Ray calm and cool

There isn't much 38-year-old Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray hasn't won or experienced in the game of football. He's a three-time Grey Cup winner, three-time all-star, Grey Cup MVP and currently sits fourth all-time in CFL passing.

So when Ray got the ball down three points with three minutes left in the game, he turned into vintage Ricky Ray.

He picked apart the Saskatchewan defence. Moved the ball around the field. Was the leader he always seems to be in pivotal moments.

"That was a long game. It felt like it took forever. A lot of emotions too," Ray said after the game.

Ray admits there was a time last season and into the off-season that he and many of the guys on the team weren't quite sure what was next for this organization, making today's win that much sweeter.

"There was a lot up in the air for a lot of guys who played here last year," he said. "I'm just happy I was here to do something like this, this year."

Ray says the team will enjoy the victory tonight and will get back to business preparing for the Grey Cup tomorrow.

"I haven't had a chance to think about where this ranks but they're all special. Obviously the one you're in right now feels the most special. It's been a lot of fun playing with these guys this year."

Former Argo sparks team

Michael "Pinball" Clemons is synonymous with Argos football. He's won five Grey Cups with the team in varying capacities. Earlier in the week, he was brought in to give a pep talk to the team in preparation for Sunday's game.

And there he was, in the end zone celebrating with all the players after the win over Saskatchewan.

"That was tremendous," Clemons said with a beaming smile. "We made one more play than they did."

Michael "Pinball" Clemons embraces Jim Popp after the Argos defeated the Roughriders to reach the Grey Cup. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

And the Argos did it in front of the club's largest crowd since moving to BMO Field. 24,929 fans, thousands in green, many more thousands in double blue, cheered wildly throughout the game. Clemons says today's game and victory marks the beginning of a rebuild in Toronto Argonauts football history.

"We are building something here," he said. "This was born over 100 years ago and has so much history and tradition. This game was a big part of it."

Clemons says he has one more speech in him before the Grey Cup game.

"But as Ben Franklin said, 'well done is better than well said.' They'll get the job done."

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.