Pinball Wizard: Michael Clemons

Pinball Wizard: Michael Clemons
Reading Time: 4 minutes.

CFL special teams have been on my mind recently. It is all because of an excellent series that has been running right here on Ninety-Nine Yards.

Greg Forbes has been running a series titled ‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’. That series has featured some iconic and truly classic NFL special teams players. As well as a look at Special Teams skill sets.

I am on record saying how much I love special teams. Because of that it seems only natural that with my CFL fan hat on this series got me thinking about some of the great special teams players who have played North of the Border.

So far we have looked at one return man, the Eskimo Express Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams. We have also featured a range of kickers. It started with Lui Passaglia, and moved on to Bob Cameron before latterly looking at Dave Cutler.

Now it is time to return to the men returning the pigskin each time a CFL kicker lets one fly. There is no better place to do that than with the man they call ‘Pinball’, Michael Clemons.

A former Division I-AA all-American, Clemons was nicknamed ‘Pinball’ because of a running style that saw him ‘bounce off’ tacklers.

An Argos Legend

Clemons on the run for the Argos. Image from CFLapedia

Michael Clemons signed as a free agent with the Toronto Argonauts in June 1989. In his first game as an Argo, Clemons had two kickoff returns for 62 yards and five punt returns for 46 yards.

In that first outing he would be named player of the game. It was the start of an incredible bond between player and team. Clemons’ whole professional career was spent in Toronto and he has served the team long past his playing days.

There are six Grey Cup rings in Clemons’ collection. Three of them came as a player. One came as Head Coach and two came as an administrator with Toronto.

Clemons regular season coaching record is 67–54–1. Which gives him the second most head coaching wins in Argonauts history.

He also had a 6–5 playoff record that included seeing him become the first black head coach to take his team to and win a Grey Cup.

Since 2009 Clemons has been Vice-Chair of the Argonauts. A role that sees him advise the president & C.E.O. on corporate partner programs, community initiatives, and brand and media relations.

Mr Do-It-All

Clemons was a Swiss army knife of a player for the Argos. Pic from the CFHOF

Clemons was arguably one of the best return men the CFL has ever seen. Of course these articles are focused on that area but we cannot overlook Clemons’ versatility.

Not only was he a brilliant return man, he was also a more than capable running back and receiver for his team.

When he passed the 5,000 yard mark in four separate categories in 1999, rushing, receiving, kick returns and punt returns he became the first person in pro-football ever to do this.

At the point of his retirement he had career statistics of 5341 yards rushing, 682 catches for 7015 yards receiving, 6025 yards returning punts and 6349 yards on kickoff returns.

All of this from a rookie season where Clemons had just 28 carries for 134 yards and one pass reception. However he served notice of things to come by returning 13 kickoffs for 356 yards and 50 punts for 507 yards including one for a touchdown.

Over his career, Clemons would go on to return 8 punts for touchdowns. 

Because Clemons was so versatile none of his career stats seen in isolation seem particularly dominant. Combined they make for an astonishing contribution to his team.

His best return years came in 1990 when he had 1876 combined return yards with 2 touchdowns & in 1997 when he had a whopping 2187 return yards with 1 touchdown.

The Records

Clemons holds the CFL all-time record for most combined career yards with
25,396 regular-season yards to his name.

He is the first pro-football player ever to record over 5,000 career yards in rushing (5,232), pass receptions (7,015), kickoff returns (6,349), and punt returns (6,025).

The Argonauts team records for career pass receptions (682), punt return yards (6,025), punt returns (610), punt return touchdowns (8), kickoff return yards (6,349), and kickoff returns (300) all belong to Clemons.

Further, Clemons also owns the Argos’ records for single-season punt return yards (1,070 in 1997), punt returns (111 in 1997), and kickoff returns (49 in 1997).

In 1990 Clemons Set the CFL single season record for all-purpose yards with
3,300 combined yards. He would break his own record in 1997 by recording 3,840 all-purpose yards.

The latter record stood for 15 years, and was only broken by Chad Owens in 2012, twelve years after Clemons had retired.

The Awards

Pinball was named the CFL’s East Division Most Outstanding Player & CFL Most Outstanding Player in 1990.

He was also named All Eastern Special Teams Player in 1990, 1993, 1994, and 1997.

Clemons also took home the CFL All-Canadian Special Teams Awards in 1990 and 1997.

A reflection of the man is the fact that he is a two time Tom Pate Award winner in 1993 and 1996.

Michael Clemons is one of only four players to have his number retired by the Argos. He is also a member of the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, and a CFL alumni Man of the Year.

One honour on Clemons CV that few others can point to is the Order of Ontario he was awarded in 2001.

The Grey Cup

Michael Clemons is a three time Grey Cup champion as a player. He won with the Double Blue in 1991, 1996 & 1997.

He also won the Grey Cup as a coach in 2004, and twice as the team’s Vice chairman in 2012 & 2017.

Beyond The Game

Clemons has been a permanent resident in Canada since 2000. He became a naturalised Canadian citizen in 2015 and has said in the past he is an “American by birth but Canadian by choice”.

Clemons set up the Pinball Clemons foundation to help disadvantaged children. You can see examples of its work on twitter.

Banner image: Pinball (far right) & teammates lift the 97 Grey Cup. image from

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