Rocket makes his mark
This week the Toronto Argonauts* are going back in time. They will do that with a 30th anniversary celebration at BMO Field for this week’s matchup with the Ottawa REDBLACKS this Wednesday. That game will see them celebrate their 1991 Grey Cup win over Calgary.
The game itself saw the Argos cashing a return on the man they had paid big money for. Raghib ‘Rocket’ Ismail who would later be named a member of the College Football Hall of Fame was the difference for the Boatmen.
So how did the Argos get to this Point? Whereby a presumtive NFL number 1 pick ended up being their Grey Cup star?
Rocket to the Argos
Raghib Ismail had a stellar career with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in college. The Rocket, as he came to be known, had quite an impact whilst there. During his time with the team Notre Dame went 33-4 and picked up a national championship following a 12-0 1989 season.
Rocket more than did his part. He remains one of only two Irish players to amass more than 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a career. Whilst his 22 yards per reception average remain a school record. Ismail is also the only player in NCAA history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in two games.
Unsurprisingly he was projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 NFL Draft. Instead he signed with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL.
And therein lies a tail. The Argos had recently been acquired by Bruce McNall, John Candy and Wayne Gretzky. He could have gone to the Dallas Cowboys bunt instead the Argos swooped. He was signed to a deal that at the time was reportedly worth US$4.55-million annually, of which only $100,000 counted towards the CFL’s then $3-million salary cap.
The CFL has had a salary cap in place since this very 1991 season. But the rules contained an exemption for a “marquee player” who would not count against the cap. Future 6,000 yard passer Doug Flutie was to be paid $1 million under the exemption by the BC Lions.
More than just Ismail
Football is a team sport. Rocket Ismail was just the headline act for the Argonauts in 1991. On their way to a 13-5 season they drew an average attendance of 38,000. A staggering 50,380 watched on as they dismantled Winnipeg 42-3 in the Eastern final.
On the field they had 8 players elected CFL All-Stars. Rocket at WR, and Hall of fame Guard Dan Ferrone from the Offence. The Defence more than did their part and DT Harold Hallman, DE Mike Campbell, LB Darryl Ford, & DB Don Wilson all made the All-Star team.
Special teams made a significant mark too. Both kicker Lance Chomyc, and Hall of fame punter Hank Ilesic made the All-Star team.
At QB Matt Dunigan had been brought in by the team. He would go on to miss 10 out of 18 regular season games due to injury. The injuries included a pulled groin, pulled hamstring, and pulled calf muscle. In the Eastern final, Dunigan broke his collarbone in two places before halftime. Backup Rickey Foggie had led the offence for nine games of the regular season and won eight of them. But on the day of the Grey Cup, Dunigan played.
Head Coach Adam Rita, had a lot of personalities to deal with on and off the field in 1991 but managed it all well enough to become Coach of the Year.
The 1991 Grey Cup game
This was the first Grey Cup game played in Winnipeg. Or should that be Winterpeg? The temperature at kickoff was minus 16 degrees Celsius, making this the coldest Grey cup game ever contested. By halftime the wind chill had it down to – 35. Dunigan, who started, was playing appropriately enough given the weather, with his shoulder frozen due to it being seperated. He wasn’t himself and went 12 of 29 for 142 yards. But that did include two TD passes. The coaches thought about taking him out but he made just enough big plays.
You would think, looking at the game stats, that Toronto had lost. Calgary had 28 first downs compared to Toronto’s seven. The Stampeders had 406 yards of total offence compared to 174 for the Argos. Instead the Boatmen picked up their first championship since 1983.
But the Argos won it with big plays. They started with a 50 yard pick six by DB Ed Berry in the first quarter. With the Argos trailing Calgary 14-12 with three minutes remaining in the third quarter Dunigan threw a 48 yard TD bomb to Darrell K smith to re-take the lead.
In the fourth quarter Toronto led 22-21 following Calgary WR Allen Pitts making a 12 yard touchdown grab. Which is when the game turned. Because on the ensuing kickoff return the Rocket lived up to the hype. Ismail returned the kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown and the Stampeders never really recovered. Dunigan threw a 36 yard TD to put the icing on the cake in a 36-21 win. Ismail was named the game’s MVP.
The 1991 Toronto Argonauts had an incredible season. On and off the field. John Candy was promoting them wherever they played, they were grabbing headlines, pulling in crowds, and most importantly of all, winning. It wasn’t to last. By 1992 they were back in the pack with a 6-12 season.
That year Ismail broke the franchise record for single-season kick return yards. However he is probably better remembered for his participation in a sideline brawl against the Stampeders where he stomped an opposing player’s helmeted face. The contract couldn’t last as the financial house of cards McNall had built started to fold. Ismail left the CFL, and, after the season, signed with the Raiders in the NFL.
On May the 5th, 1994 – three years and two months after McNall, Gretzky and Candy bought the Argos, they were sold to TSN Enterprises. The move came less than two months after Candy’s sudden death at the age of 43.
The next great Argos team, with their own stories to tell would be the back to back 15-win championship teams of 1996 and 1997.
Whatever happened after it however, 1991 was an amazing season. Enough to warrant its’ own book. And no matter how briefly this team shone, they illuminated the CFL as brightly as possible. No wonder the Argos organisation is celebrating this anniversary.
*If you want to know more about the Argos and whether they are the team for you take a look here.
Banner Image from cfl.ca