Former QB Joe Theismann has fond memories of 1971 Argos

Former quarterback Joe Theismann will be among the members of the 1971 Argonaut squad who will be recognized at halftime Saturday when Toronto host Calgary at Rogers Centre.
Former football QB great Joe Theismann will be among the members of the 1971 Argo squad who will be recognized at halftime Saturday when Toronto host the Calgary Stampeders at Rogers Centre. (Rich Schultz/Associated Press)

The truth is finally out: It was Joe Theismann who cost the Toronto Argonauts the 1971 Grey Cup.

The Calgary Stampeders cemented a 14-11 victory Nov, 28, 1971 at Vancouver's Empire Stadium by recovering Leon McQuay's late fumble on a soggy field. McQuay's miscue remains the most memorable in Grey Cup history.

On Friday, Theismann and 12 other members of the '71 squad gathered at the Argos' practice facility and it wasn't long before many of his former teammates began suggesting if Theismann hadn't handed the ball off, McQuay wouldn't have fumbled.

"They blame me for everything," Theismann said with a chuckle. "They blame me for climate, they blame me for weather, they blame me for financial disasters.

"That group of guys could figure out a way to say, 'Aw, it's Joe's fault.' But that's what you love about them. It's a very unique group of guys. It's a collection of players, a collection of men that have never forgotten where they've come from or the friendships we've developed. For many of us, it was our first foray into professional football."

Theismann, who looks years younger than his age of 62, will be among the members of the '71 Toronto squad who will be recognized at halftime Saturday when the Argos host Calgary at Rogers Centre. Theismann and his former teammates were also in town for the filming of a documentary about their squad that is scheduled to be aired by during Grey Cup week in November.

"It's great to be home," Theismann said of his return to Toronto. "I consider it home.

"Two of my three children were born in the city of Toronto, this is where I started my professional career and to be able to come back and attend the game, it's ironic the Calgary Stampeders are going to be here. They're the ones that sort of stole the ring from us in Vancouver … It's great to be back and to be part of an organization that appreciates the guys who got here before."

The Miami Dolphins selected Theismann in the fourth round of the '71 NFL draft out of Notre Dame but when contract talks broke down Theismann signed with Toronto. Theismann guided the Argos to a 10-4 regular-season record and Grey Cup berth as a rookie.

Theismann spent 3 years with Argos

Theismann spent three years with Toronto and was an all-star in 1971 and '73 before going to the NFL with the Washington Redskins. Theismann spent 12 seasons in Washington, twice being named to the Pro Bowl and leading the club to two Super Bowl appearances (winning one) but even now the sting of the '71 Grey Cup loss remains.

"I do think about the Grey Cup," he said. "Every time football season rolls around, having won a world championship and lost one, it doesn't sit with me like losing the Grey Cup sits with me.

"It was the first chance to be a part of something really special. Had we been able to deliver, what would it had been like? That's the thing you ask yourself."

He might not have a Grey Cup ring, but Theismann said he has a lifetime of memories regarding his time in Toronto, thanks in large part to Leo Cahill, the colourful former Argos head coach.

"I define that group of guys, they're characters with character," Theismann said. "We never did things in a conventional way because Leo wasn't a conventional coach.

"You are who your coach is, you're a reflection of your coach and we really were a reflection of his personality, his love, his effervescence, our enthusiasm for the game. He was the architect of the CFL back in the 70s . . . he's the one who made it exciting for guys to come up here, to come to the city of Toronto. Leo was the guy who made it possible for so many people. He was a visionary, to be perfectly honest with you. I would've felt at some point Leo being commissioner of the CFL would've been a great move because of his ability to communicate with people, because of his charm."

And, Theismann added, a devilish smile.

"Anybody that knows Leo, you just look at him and he puts that sly smile on you and you know there's something devious going on behind it," he said. "You're convinced there's something devious but you're just not quite sure what it is.

"That's Leo."

Dave Raimey, a former standout tailback and defensive back with Winnipeg and Toronto during a 10-year CFL career, agreed.

"We had a lot of personalities on that team but you also have to include Leo Cahill," Raimey said. "It was his personality, we were just part of that.

"He recruited us misfits, you can call some of us that, guys who didn't fit into other team situations. Leo was a big part of it."

But Raimey also said the '71 Argos also knew how to have fun, often at each other's expense.

"When I played with Toronto, I also worked selling insurance and I often came to practice wearing a shirt and tie," he said. "I'd get dressed into my practice clothes right away and go to a meeting and was always running tight.

"Well, I came in one time to find all my stuff taped up. Another time, everyone was looking at me as I came through the door and suddenly I looked up and saw water coming down on me. And I also remember coming in and seeing my stuff in the middle of the floor on fire one time.

"Leo would keep telling me, 'Dave, I'm going to have to fine you because you're late.' Thankfully he never fined me but sometimes I had to go in there naked and get dressed during the meeting. It was crazy. We had so much fun on that team, there was so much togetherness. It was a thrill."

Canada, CFL unique

Theismann said there were many aspects about the CFL that made playing in Canada very unique compared to the NFL experience.

"In the CFL, if you represented the East, you represented the eastern part of the entire country and if you represented the West, you represented the western part of the country," he said. "With the Super Bowl, you represent two cities and it's a corporate affair.

"It's very different and I think it's still a lot like that when it comes to the Grey Cup in itself."

And Theismann remains a very staunch supporter of the CFL.

"Anybody who dismisses the CFL is doing themself an injustice because they're showing their ignorance," he said. "Anybody that would criticize the CFL I really don't think understands the game, they don't understand the significance of the impact you can have on a player's life.

"It certainly did mine and a lot of other guys. Talk to Jeff Garcia, talk to Warren Moon, talk to Doug Flutie. Our experiences up here I think allowed us to be able to transition back into the NFL and enjoy some of the success that we did."

Theismann has been able to see replays of the '71 Grey Cup and said he's shocked at just how much bigger the Stampeders were than the Argos.

"I didn't realize how much they looked like men and we looked like boys," he said. "Now, 40 years later had the weather been dry we would've kicked their rear end, I believe that.

"We were more of a finesse, fast team and they were more big and tough. But it was a great game."

And Theismann heaped lavish praise upon Calgary's defence.

"That defensive front was as good as I've ever played against in any league," he said. "I've played against the greatest defences in football, the old Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"That Calgary front was as good as any front as I've played against and I know because I ran from them. I gauge how good a defence is by how often I have to run from them and I ran from them a lot."