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Journalist-CFL historian Paul Woods chronicles Toronto Argonauts' magical 1991 season


TORONTO — It's hard to imagine there ever being another year like 1991 in the Toronto Argonauts' rich and colourful history.

The storied franchise, which was founded in 1873, shocked the North American sports landscape twice that year. First was the introduction of American businessman Bruce McNall, NHL superstar Wayne Gretzky and actor-comedian John Candy as owners.

Months later, Toronto set the football word on its ear by luring Notre Dame star receiver Raghib (Rocket) Ismail -- who'd been projected as the first overall NFL draft pick -- to Canada with a record four-year, US$26.2-million contract, $18.2 million guaranteed.

The combination of a powerful ownership group and mercurial Ismail paid immediate dividends for Toronto.

Attendance climbed from 30,500 to just north of 37,000 and Ismail recorded 64 catches for 1,300 yards (20.3-yard average) with nine touchdowns as Toronto posted a CFL-best 13-5-0 record. Ismail then provided a storybook ending, his 87-yard kickoff return TD anchoring the club's 36-21 Grey Cup win over the Calgary Stampeders to secure game MVP honours.

But in his book "Year of the Rocket: John Candy, Wayne Gretzky a Crooked Tycoon and the Craziest Season in Football History," author-CFL historian Paul Woods also chronicles the Argos' downward spiral following the championship. Not only did Toronto miss the playoffs the next two seasons, but Ismail was gone after the '92 campaign and the franchise was sold a year later.

In December, 1993, McNall pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and fraud and admitted to bilking six banks out of US$236 million. He was sentenced to 70 months in prison.

"It was a whole different time, a whole different world than now and that's partly why I did the book," said Woods, a former journalist with The Canadian Press and Toronto Star. "I felt the story needed to be captured for posterity because it really was the most magical, electrifying year in Toronto Argonauts history . . . There's never been a year like 1991 and I doubt there'll be one like it again.

"The league was on shakier ground than what I think people realize. But at the same time it was still a pretty big deal and the arrival of those three, followed by the signing of The Rocket, made it absolutely a really huge deal for a brief period of time, an all-too-brief period of time, basically."

Ismail left Toronto to sign with the Los Angeles Raiders. He'd spend nine seasons in the NFL with the Raiders (93-95), Carolina (96-98) and Dallas (99-01).

Then on May 5, 1994, the Argos were sold to TSN Enterprises. It came less than two months after Candy's sudden death at age 43.

When Ismail arrived, he joined a talented Argos squad that featured such proven stars as quarterback Matt Dunigan, running back/kick-returner Mike (Pinball) Clemons, receivers Paul Masotti and Darrell K. Smith, defensive tackle Rodney Harding and defensive back Carl Brazley.

Ismail's impact, though, was immediate, returning a kick 73 yards on a reverse with Clemons in his CFL debut.

A home-opening crowd of 41,178 fans saw Toronto defeat Hamilton 41-18 and afterwards they watched Candy and Dan Aykroyd perform with the Elwood Blues Revue. Then, in the East Division final, more than 50,000 spectators witnessed Toronto dispatch Winnipeg 42-3.

But Dunigan suffered a separated shoulder in that game, leaving his Grey Cup status uncertain. After throwing passes in a hotel ballroom, Dunigan had injections before the game and also at halftime, which allowed him to play.

Dunigan was just 12-of-29 passing for 142 yards but threw two TD strikes and provided inspiration to his teammates. After Calgary pulled to within 22-21 in the fourth, Ismail delivered the knockout blow, evading a beer can that had been thrown at him from the stands and landed near his feet in the process.

"Matt Dunigan's courageousness is one of the highlights of the book, I think," Woods said. "He'd won a Grey Cup in 1987 with Edmonton but sat the whole second half with a concussion and lost in 1986 and '88 so he'd never had the joy of being the guy who led his team from start to finish to victory in the Grey Cup.

"If you watch footage of him after the game in the locker room you'll see he's in tears and it's not just tears of joy because that stuff wore off. Matt was definitely a heroic figure but to me the real hero is John Candy, which I must say I'd known from pretty much the beginning."

Gretzky and Candy both paid $1 million each for 20 per cent shares in the franchise. But while Gretzky attended Argos games growing up in Brantford, Ont., Candy was truly passionate about the franchise and tirelessly promoted it and CFL.

"John loved the Argos like no other owner ever has, arguably like no other fan has," Woods said. "I do believe if it hadn't been for McNall, Gretzky and Candy there wouldn't have been American expansion by the CFL, which at the time was very important to its survival."

In fact, Woods writes it was Candy who convinced Detroit businessman Bernie Glieberman to purchase the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1991. Glieberman was originally interested in Hamilton and the deal for the Riders was ultimately brokered by the McNall Group, not the CFL.

The Argos' high-profile ownership certainly created hoopla, but McNall knew that wasn't enough.

As Woods writes in the book: "McNall was shrewd enough to know that no one ever bought a ticket to a sporting match to watch the person sitting in the owner's box. Something even bigger than a life-preserver all the way from Hollywood would needed to make the Argos relevant again. Sometime on the field."

So when McNall met Argos GM Mike McCarthy, he had one simple suggestion: Think big.

McCarthy responded by putting Ismail, then U.S. college football's hottest commodity, on the CFL team's negotiation list, giving it exclusive right to try and sign Ismail to play in Canada.

It was certainly a longshot. CFL teams routinely add players to their negotiation list who never come north. But in April 1991, during a Kings-Edmonton Oilers playoff game, Ismail signed with Toronto to become football's highest-paid player.

Like he'd done in 1988 by bringing Gretzky to L.A. from Edmonton, McNall worked his magic in the football world. But while there was no doubting Ismail's on-field ability, he was nowhere near ready to become the face of a franchise.

In fact, Woods writes Gretzky himself confirmed he and Candy had to provide Ismail with remedial media training despite Ismail having attended Notre Dame. But Woods also writes, 'It was not simply a matter of training Ismail on how to deal with media. He had done that. He just didn't enjoy it."

Ismail declined repeated requests to be interviewed for the book.

As Ismail and Toronto were busy racking up wins in 1991, Woods writes there were early signs troubled times were ahead.

"While the team had plenty of success in 1991, it wasn't doing as well as (ownership) had expected," Woods said. "They got 50,000 for the East final and over 41,000 for the home opener but beyond that, crowds were in the 30,000 range and they were counting on crowds in the 50,000 range.

"They really had to build on the hype and hoopla of '91, instead they pulled in the reins. They stopped spending money because McNall didn't have the money. The reason it couldn't  be sustained is there was no money behind it. They let Matt Dunigan go, which was a gigantic mistake despite the fact he had all those injuries. He was a marketable commodity and by far the league's most high-profile quarterback. Letting him walk and replacing him with Rickey Foggie, who was a fantastic No. 2 but wasn't really cut out to be a No. 1, didn't help."

Neither did pinning the franchise's '92 fortunes on Ismail.

"They put so much money into Rocket Ismail so they needed him to be the focal point in 1992," Woods said. "But you can't do that because you can't get the ball to a receiver enough.

"(Head coach) Adam Rita knew that but head office was telling him: 'We've got to make it Rocket, Rocket, Rocket.' You add all that up and 1992 became a disaster, all the magic and electricity of 1991 was gone six-to-eight months later."

Ismail made headlines in 1992 for stomping on Calgary fullback Andy McVey's head during a melee.

Despite the meteoric rise, then fall of Toronto's fortunes between 1991-94, Woods feels neither the Argos nor CFL would be present today if not for McNall, Gretzky and Candy.

"I'm fairly confident the league would've died in the mid-1990s had it not been for expansion, which I trace back to those guys," he said. "In some ways you could say that particular group helped bridge the league to what later became a pretty stable, successful operating venture.

"It's going through it's struggles right now, COVID is certainly not helping and in this (Toronto) market it's very much a struggle and challenge. But I think those guys did help save Canadian football in Toronto . . . without them, I'm not sure we'd still have an Argonauts team to cheer for."

The book is Woods's second on the Argos. In 2013, he authored "Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs," chronicling Toronto's 1983 championship season that ended a dubious 31-year Grey Cup drought.

"Year of the Rocket: John Candy, Wayne Gretzky a Crooked Tycoon and the Craziest Season in Football History." By Paul Woods. Sutherland House. 275 pages. $24.95.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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