'Pinball' ringing success for Argos

August 19, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

The name "Pinball" conjures up visions of a little ball ricocheting off obstacles in an electrifying fashion while quickly piling up points.

It seems a perfect fit for Toronto Argonauts all-purpose back Mike "Pinball" Clemons, who poses the biggest threat to the Baltimore CFLs' defense tomorrow night at Memorial Stadium.

At 5 feet 5 and 170 pounds, Clemons gave the CFLs a quick introduction to his elusive nature in the season opener at SkyDome July 7, when he ran back one punt 68 yards for a touchdown and had another TD punt return nullified by a holding penalty in the Argonauts' 28-20 loss.

But first, the evolution of the nickname.

"Oh, Pinball is just something Coach [Bob] O'Billovich started calling me my rookie year," he said.

"The scrub squad was practicing goal-line scrimmage plays, and the first time I got the ball, I made a couple of moves to get into the end zone. O'Billovich yelled, 'Do it again!' and I did. And he screamed, 'Do it again!' and I scored again.

"When practice ended, he told the reporters, 'We have this new guy who bounces around like a pinball.' It stuck, and the name has served me well as a pro."

Doing the spectacular is what Toronto fans have come to expect of Clemons, who was the first CFL back to top 3,000 total yards when he rushed, received and returned kickoffs and punts for 3,300 in 1990.

It earned Clemons, then in his second season, the CFL's Most Outstanding Player award, when he was playing for a reported $56,000.

Baltimore CFLs coach Don Matthews was Clemons' coach in Toronto that record-breaking season, and his respect for the Florida native only has grown over the years.

"He's a great player and a good friend," said Matthews, now busy devising ways to hold Clemons in check. "I believe Mike is the most exciting player in the CFL. He can break a long run any time he touches the ball. He could make you miss a tackle in a phone booth."

Ask defensive tackle Jearld Baylis, who has been both a teammate and a rival, what makes Clemons so special, and Baylis responds, "Heart. Pinball's got one of the biggest hearts in the world. Look at that small body, and you think you can break him in half. But he's as tough and competitive as they come."

He's not one to shy from contact, or hard work. This season he has carried 54 times for 241 yards, caught 21 passes for 340 and returned 24 punts for 215 yards.

"And besides being a great runner, he's just as big a man off the field," said Baylis, noting Clemons was named the CFL's Tom Pate Memorial Man of the Year for his sportsmanship and community service.

Last fall, Clemons was watching on TV when Carlton College punt returner Rob Dunn had his jaw shattered against the University of Ottawa. Without fanfare, Clemons flew to Ottawa on an off day to give Dunn one of his Argonauts jerseys.

Despite his good deeds, the Argonauts considered trading Clemons in 1992, a year after they signed Rocket Ismail of Notre Dame to a multimillion-dollar contract.

Ismail's arrival pushed Clemons into the shadows. Under then-offensive coordinator Mouse Davis' run-and-shoot offense, Clemons became little more than a decoy.

Jealousy over Ismail's role and big contract would have been natural. But Clemons found only positives in having had Ismail, now with the Los Angeles Raiders, on his side.

"When your career ends, you don't remember the games as much as the people you played with," Clemons said. "And I found Ismail to be an exceptional individual.

"His first year with Toronto, we won the Grey Cup, and his presence gave the whole league a higher profile. He came to Canada with a huge salary, but that served as a springboard for the other players.

"It didn't put me in his financial league, but it made sports fans in Toronto ask, 'Why isn't Pinball making more money?' " said Clemons, now earning more than $100,000 a year, plus incentive bonuses.

It seems almost a princely sum to a young man who grew up in public housing in Dunedin, Fla., living with his mother and blind great-great grandmother.

"Looking back, it was probably rough," he said. "We lived a rock's throw from the railroad track and across from a sewage plant. But I gained a strong Christian influence from my mother, a single parent who was 18 when I was born.

"That's where I learned what charity is all about. My mother was the sole support for me and my great-great grandmother. She was always doing for others. She made me very conscious of having to give more than you receive."

Despite his size, Clemons became an all-state back at Dunedin High, leading his team to 31-4 record his three years as a starter.

At William & Mary, he amassed 4,778 yards, including 2,000 as a senior to gain I-AA All-America honors.

Drafted in the eighth round by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1987, Clemons made the team as a kick return specialist. "I thought I was doing fine, but two weeks into the season, the NFL Players Association called a strike, and I felt obligated to walk out with them," he said.

The Chiefs cut him the next year, and he failed a subsequent tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That was when Clemons, who has a management degree, gave serious consideration to an offer to become a production control manager for Honeywell in Clearwater, Fla.

But the Argonauts came calling at the same time, offering a tryout in their 1989 training camp.

"They called me at noon and asked me to catch a 3 o'clock flight," he said. "I told myself this would be my last fling at football. If I didn't get a good feel for the situation in Toronto, I'd go back to Honeywell and ask if the offer was still good."

But all that is now on hold. Pinball's days of bouncing all over the map are over.

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