The day that Pinball let me into his world

It was 2001 when I approached Mike (Pinball) Clemons about venturing out to his house and writing a profile of him for the Toronto Star.

I wanted to get an inside look at the man with the eternal smile. Was he really that happy all the time? What made him tick?

Pinball graciously invited me to his house and we spent the better part of a day together.

I found out some interesting things: that he will tend to the garden as therapy, even — as crazy as it sounds — at midnight.

Over the years we lost touch, but Pinball didn’t forget me. When I took up coverage of the Toronto Argonauts two years ago, he spotted me for the first time in years, and called out to me, with that unmistakable smile.

“Captain Curt,” he said, extending his hand. That’s what he called me then, and that’s what he calls me now.

In counting down the days to retirement, I am showcasing my top-40 stories over the final 40 days. This is No. 36 on my list.

This story ran June 11, 2001 on the front page of Life.

Beloved former Argos player, Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons celebrates with fans in 2014. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

‘THE MAN FROM GLAD’

By Curtis Rush

It’s Saturday afternoon, a week before the Toronto Argonauts open their CFL training camp, and head coach Mike (Pinball) Clemons is on the field. His home field.

Dressed in dark sweat clothes, the man they call Pinball (for the way the star running back used to bounce off would-be tacklers) plants his feet and springs into action.

Pinball’s lawn, fed by days of rain, has sprouted wildly and he’s mowing it down — precisely how he wants his football team to mow down the opposition this season. One step at a time.

After taking over as coach midway through last season and almost lifting the Argos into the playoffs, Clemons starts with a clean slate in his first full season as coach and vice-president of football operations.

In a profession where successful coaches are often cold and calculating, where winning is the only thing, the soft-spoken and spiritual Clemons stands in sharp contrast — a warm-hearted, soulful man whose vision extends beyond the goal lines.

Building a winning record isn’t as important to him as building people. Yet, with violence woven into his sport’s very fabric, Clemons is a contradiction. He’s a true gentleman — yet not exactly a true pacifist. One of the hardest hitters during his 12-year playing career, he wants to knock the stuffing out of the other CFL teams as a coach .

As he churns up the lawn with the mower, Diane, his wife of nine years, chews on a bagel inside their spacious Oakville home while daughters Rachel, 7, and Raven, 3, romp about.

Clemons’ wife marvels at her husband’s growing attention to home and garden. The previous week, Pinball was out digging up earth and planting flowers — at midnight for heaven’s sake — with the headlights of his Ford Explorer turned on to illuminate the front of the house.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know what time it is?’” Diane laughs. “But gardening is therapy for him. He just had to get it done.”

There is only so much time and only so much of the 5-foot-6 Pinball to go around. He rarely turns down personal appearances and stays longer than he should. His wife sometimes says no for him. “I’m the mean one, “ she says, joking.

Diane is engaging, although shy underneath. Her close friend Christine Gerber acknowledges that she’s “mostly a private person” but she’s seen a different side, too.

A couple of years ago at a birthday party for Gerber’s husband, Diane was uncomfortable with a roomful of strangers. But a new person soon emerged. The party had a 1950s theme complete with hula-hoop competition. Diane shocked everyone, including her husband, with a gravity-defying, swivel-hipped routine in which she moved the hula-hoop from neck to ankles.

“She brought the house down and it was funny because here was a reversal of roles — she was the one who had the spotlight and not Mike, “ Gerber says.

At Clemons’ 35th birthday party, which had a ’60s theme, his wife wore a mini-skirt and played Diana Ross while her friends, including Gerber, donned costumes as the Supremes’ backup singers. They lip-synched their own hilarious version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

The truth is that Diane is a performer and feels more comfortable singing the national anthem before 30,000 people at a football game than talking one-on-one with a stranger.

She sings at weddings and church functions, writes gospel music and is at work producing an album. With her unerring eye for interior design, she has selected a safari theme for their house. Pastel walls, dark wood furniture, black leather sofas and maple wood flooring offset animal-print colours. There is little to indicate this is the home of a football star. Trophies and awards are tucked away in Pinball’s home office.

Although their phone number is unlisted, more than 50 messages pour in daily. Eventually, all are answered.

Over the off-season, the couple escaped to Florida and to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. It was a time for taking in the sun and relaxing with a good book — the Bible.

Pinball and Diane, who both had a Baptist upbringing in Florida, will often lie on the beach reading the Bible while sipping their favourite drink — a virgin strawberry daiquiri.

They both avoid alcohol. Pinball has had a beer only once, a promise to his college friends when he was drafted into the NFL, where he played briefly before coming to Canada in 1989.

His wife realizes some think he may be too nice to succeed as a coach. “Because he’s smiling all the time, people mistakenly think he’s got no backbone, “ she says. “But they don’t know him. He won’t let anybody run over him.”

Six-year Argo veteran Adrion Smith admits he at first didn’t think Pinball should take the coaching position.

“I felt that he was going to tarnish his image in the city because the fans are going to be with you when you win, but they’re not going to be with you when you lose, “ Smith says.

But Pinball led the Argos to a 6–4 record after the team had staggered to a 1–6–1 record under the tyrannical reign of John Huard, who was forced into an ignoble resignation.

Now Smith and the others are convinced the Pinball Wizard is the rightful Argo leader.

“He doesn’t get irate but he still gets the message across, “ Smith says. “He treats everyone different. With a veteran, he might poke him in the chest and say he’s got to step it up. But with a rookie who’s got a confidence problem, he might put an arm around him.”

When he’s got to cut a player loose, especially if it’s one of his longtime friends and former teammates, he can’t sleep.

A successful businessman who co-founded the marketing company Marketeers Call Centres in Barrie, Clemons talks to CEOs about having both passion and compassion.

“You have a passion for what you do, but you also have to genuinely care about people, “ he says. “If not, you’re only a temporary leader. There are a lot of great temporary leaders around. They run roughshod, they lead by fear. Sometimes they get results but only for a short period of time.”

Does he ever get angry? “Why should I get angry?” he asks.

If racial discrimination doesn’t get him angry, nothing will. A few years ago, he and Diane walked into a Mercedes-Benz dealership casually dressed. “The sales people walked all around us and didn’t give us any attention, “ Pinball says. “I’d like to think it wasn’t because we are black. It could have been because of the way we were dressed.”

They left that dealership but Clemons’ wife eventually got her Mercedes.

The couple work hard at their relationship. He often asks her how he can be a better husband. His role, he says, is to “serve my wife. She’s my queen.” Clemons will often treat her to a massage while she, in turn, will prepare his favourite meal of fried chicken.

“He’s always happy, “ Diane says. “He goes to bed happy and he wakes up happy. That sometimes gets me frustrated because I’m not a morning person and when I wake up, sometimes I just don’t feel like being happy.”

The CFL’s most outstanding player in 1990 and a member of three Grey Cup championship teams, Pinball is fully aware that a woman with a celebrity husband can sometimes struggle for her own identity.

That’s why Clemons’ wife recently took a job selling promotional sports items at Plain & Simple in Toronto and is considering opening a clothing store, all with the support of Mike. “It’s my time now, “ she says, smiling.

It’s time to leave for the dance studio, where the couple’s elder daughter practises tap, ballet and jazz. On the way, Pinball stops for gas and then for juice and a muffin.

Neither the gas attendant nor the woman at the drive-through window makes a fuss. It’s Pinball himself who treats them like they’re famous.

“How you doing?” he asks enthusiastically. A short answer is greeted with more frothy small talk. “Great, great, “ he says, beaming. “Have a good day.”

As friend Christine Gerber says about the Clemons family: “They feel a sense of responsibility to bless others because they’ve been blessed.”

Asked to sum up this stage of his life, Pinball says softly: “I’m 36 years old and the last 36 years have been great.”

And to him, that’s the gospel.

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