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One-time Argos linebacker Mike O'Shea was part of three Grey Cup-winning teams with Toronto in 1996, 1997 and 2004. ((Courtesy CFL.ca))

Mike O'Shea was wearing a pressed blue shirt with his initials monogrammed on the sleeve. There were no fresh cuts on his knuckles, nor were there any visible bruises that indicated his new life away from the football field had been anywhere near as punishing as his 16-year career as a CFL linebacker.

He even smiled a few times during a news conference Friday, something that he did infrequently at the height of his career with the Toronto Argonauts. He had found a good life away from the game, but O'Shea has given it all up.

"I'm not all about this," he said, eyeing his crisp shirt. "Inside, it's still bleeding knuckles."

Less than a year after the Argos ended his playing career by refusing to offer a new contract, O'Shea has become the team's special teams co-ordinator, one of eight assistant coaching vacancies filled Friday. Toronto head coach Jim Barker also hired long-time safety Orlondo Steinauer to guide the defensive backs as the organization tries to rebound from its worst season in two decades.

Chip Garber, a former assistant with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with decades of experience in the U.S. college ranks, was named defensive co-ordinator. Greg Quick, another NCAA veteran, is Toronto's linebackers coach, while George Dyer was added to guide the defensive line.

Barker also named Jaime Elizondo, another well-travelled NCAA assistant, as the offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach. Stephen McAdoo, who spent four seasons as an assistant with the Montreal Alouettes, will coach the offensive line. Cos DeMatteo, a former Arena Football League player, will be the receivers coach.

The staff was finalized Sunday, and Barker made a point of mentioning he did not target assistant coaches already working in the CFL. He also made a point of saying he was not concerned about giving O'Shea and Steinauer their first coaching jobs.

"I am nervous," O'Shea said, smiling. "It's a good feeling. Those butterflies in your stomach are your body's way of letting you know that you're getting ready to embark on a real challenge. And that's exciting for me — I like the butterflies."

It was not an easy decision. O'Shea had landed full-time work in sales with a U.S.-based company with more than 10,000 products in its repertoire, while specializing in hip and knee replacement technology. O'Shea was also a vice-president with the CFL Players' Association and was heavily involved in talks to reach a new collective bargaining agreement with the league.

Hard decision for O'Shea

The current deal expires a day before training camp opens this spring. Leaving both jobs pained O'Shea.

"I've not been one to really quit," he said. "So that's what I struggle with the most, leaving two groups that I had a lot of passion for, felt a lot of loyalty to. This decision made me question my character and my fabric as to whether or not it's all been sort of a lie."

He came to the conclusion it has not.

O'Shea was never as nuanced as a player. He won three Grey Cups with the Argos, registering the second-most tackles in history (1,151) with a hard-nosed style that sometimes angered opponents while endearing him to teammates. And he was a lion in the dressing room.

"I think the hardest part that he's going to have to deal with is guys not giving 100 per cent," long-time friend and teammate Mike Morreale said. "He played special teams like that was his job, just like it was playing defence. He's probably going to demand a lot out of guys. There will be no slacking."

Under schemes devised by then defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler, O'Shea and Steinauer led what might be remembered as one of the best defences in CFL history. The Argos allowed a league-low 19.9 points per-game in 2005, and surrendered an awe-inspiring average of only 15.9 points two years later. 

"There was many a night when I was there, and I saw those two guys trying to get it done," Rita said. "Unfortunately, I was the guy who cut them from their playing career, but I just thought that was just the beginning of another career. We just had to wait for the right time."

The Argos have experience in having players jump to the sidelines. Michael (Pinball) Clemons retired as a player in 2000 to take over as head coach, and he led Toronto to six consecutive East Division final appearances and a Grey Cup title in 2004.

The team has not made the playoffs in either of the two seasons since he left the sidelines.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you how many games we're going to win," Steinauer said. "I'm a believer in getting better every single week and of 46 men sharing a common goal, and that's to ultimately win the Grey Cup."

O'Shea, who never actually filed retirement papers with the league, has more immediate goals. One of them was to reclaim a wardrobe closer to the one he had as a player, one that did not include pressed blue shirts with his initials monogrammed on the sleeve.

"Listen, this shirt will go right back into the trunk of my car, rolled up in a ball in the corner," he said with a laugh. "I'll stop by the little dry cleaners on the way to the next press conference I have to wear it at, where they can iron it for me and I can slap it on."