They began to line up like they did 20 years ago, a then-and-now re-creation of a handful of Toronto Argonauts raising the Grey Cup above their heads.
Doug Flutie was front and centre, with Michael “Pinball” Clemons to his left. Derrell “Mookie” Mitchell was off to Flutie’s right. They were joined by Mike Morreale, Jeremy O’Day and Pierre Vercheval.
They’re all a little greyer now than they were when they all posed for the original picture, standing on the frozen grass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, and there was one notable absence from the shot.
Someone, a voice from the huddle said as they got into position, needed to fill Don Matthews’ spot.
In the bigger picture, Matthews’ spot will forever be vacant. The one-of-a-kind coach became a legend in the CFL, both for a record-setting career on the field – he went 231-132-1 as a head coach and was a five-time Grey Cup winner – and a huge personality off of it. His five-year battle with cancer ended on June 14. He was 77.
The Snap: Popp on the legendary Doug Flutie
Cauz: Argos’ short-lived dynasty one for the ages
Landry: The brilliant, headstrong, playful mind of Don Matthews
Buy: OTT at TOR tickets
There was a high school reunion feel to the Argos’ celebration of its 1996 and 1997 Grey Cup-winning teams on Sunday night in downtown Toronto. Clemons said he hadn’t seen many of those old teammates since that last night they were all together in Edmonton. Everywhere you went, players’ faces lit up when they saw their old teammates. Wherever you went and whichever conversations you heard snippets of, Matthews’ name continually came up.
“We all miss Don. He was such a big part of what we accomplished as a team,” Flutie says. “He had a knack for making his players relax and go have fun. He kept it fun. I had good seasons in other places, but did not have as much fun as we did here in Toronto. That was because of two factors. One was Pinball and the other was Don Matthews.”
Michael “Pinball” Clemons echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“He was a visionary. He was a game changer. He was a winner. He was the best,” Clemons says.
“His impact was so overwhelming on this team and just in my life in general.”
Mitchell came to the CFL in 1997 after a college career that wrapped up at Texas Tech and a year in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints and in the World League, playing for the Scottish Claymores. He was used to tough, regimented coaches. He had no idea what he’d get in Matthews, or the impact that the coach would have on his life.
“Coach Matthews was loose. He was that real players’ coach,” he says.
“Regardless of what you did with the nightlife with Toronto, he would always tell us, ‘You better be able to perform on game day,’ and he really meant that. Guys respected that.”
“He wanted you to enjoy yourself,” Clemons says. “Now, he was focused on the game. He wanted to win but Don thought fun was a part of that.
“Winning was important to him and it was serious, putting your time in, putting your work in. He believed that you could go out and do your work and the length of time wasn’t a direct correlation to the effectiveness of the work you got done.”
Flutie says Matthews simplified the game for everyone and had their backs. That made players around the league want to be on a Matthews-coached team
“I remember the first day I met him he said, ‘Doug, you’re my quarterback. If you throw five interceptions you’re going to get a chance to throw six,’” Flutie says, laughing.
“Just by saying that, you knew he had confidence in you. Any risk I wanted to take, he was behind it. A trick play? Go, run it, do what you feel. It put you at ease and allowed you to play. If you’re looking over your shoulder or you’re thinking too much out there it slows you down. All of Don’s players, we played at full speed because we knew he had our back.
“For him to not be here and be a part of (the reunion), it’s…just very disappointing and it’s sad. He should be here.”
Matthews’ wife, Stephanie, feels he’s there. She sees him in his former players there on Sunday and wonders about the small things, like how his birthdate – June 22 – continues to find ways to pop into her day-to-day life since he’s passed.
“I feel him all around me all the time,” she says. They met in Montreal and married in 2008.
Mitchell also continues to find ways that Matthews impacts his life.
His playing career ended with the Argos in 2007. He coached with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2011 and 2012 and stayed in the city. Today, he works with high-risk kids at a group home. Even after football, Mitchell finds some of Matthews’ lessons passed on to him. He remembers being a rookie in the CFL, with nowhere to go for Thanksgiving and how Matthews invited him and his roommate over to his Lakeshore condo in Toronto for dinner.
“I just take that approach with them,” he says. “I want you to be able to trust me, that you can tell me anything. That’s the nature of the field I’m in. The kids have to have someone they can trust and depend on. And I’ve got that kind of relationship in Edmonton with the kids I work with. That has been passed on from coaches like coach Matthews and good coaches that I’ve had throughout my career.”
“I think that was his greatest gift, was getting the best out of people,” Clemons says. “You wanted to perform for him, which is contrary to what you hear in the greater universe sometimes. Don loved his guys, looked after his guys.”
There’s a peacefulness to Stephanie on Sunday, having come through Don’s long and difficult five-year battle. She speaks of letting his six grandchildren know about his impact on people and on a game on the other side of the border from his family.
“Love doesn’t go anywhere when the body goes,” she says as the room full of men that followed her husband’s lead all laugh and reminisce. “It’s all here.”
Photo Courtesy of CFL.ca