In a champagne-drenched locker room at Winnipeg Stadium on Sunday, while his Toronto Argonaut teammates drank from the Grey Cup after their 36-21 Canadian Football League championship victory over the Calgary Stampeders, veteran defensive lineman Harold Hallman had something he felt compelled to say. He went over to Argos co-owner John Candy, who was standing in a rear hallway, put his arms around the big actor-comedian and whispered in his ear, "Thanks for coming in and saving us. You guys, I love you." Candy, one of Toronto's three rookie owners, wiped away a tear.
A year ago the Grey Cup, the CFL's showcase event, was played before a papered house in Vancouver, and the eight-team league was flirting with extinction. One franchise, the Ottawa Rough Riders, was about to fold; another, the municipally owned Stampeders, was desperate to sell but couldn't find a buyer; and Harry Ornest, proprietor of the CFL's flagship franchise, the Argos, was looking to get out as well.
But in February, along came California tycoon Bruce McNall and two celebrity partners, Candy and Wayne Gretzky, to buy the Argos. Two months later, on the eve of the NFL draft, McNall lured Notre Dame hotshot Raghib (Rocket) Ismail across the border with the offer of the richest contract in pro football. It all added up to instant revival for Toronto and the CFL. "I like to call it the Lazarus syndrome," Candy says.
While the Argos were roaring through a championship season—going 13-5 and then routing the defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers 42-3 in the playoffs—they were also providing some impetus for the transfer of the Ottawa and Calgary franchises to new, stable ownerships and puffing up Canadian pride in the tired old CFL.
December 2, 1991
On Sunday, a sellout crowd of 51,985 that had paid as much as $107 (Canadian dollars) for a ticket, withstood a windchill of - 19° to watch a command performance by the league's marquee name. In the fourth quarter, Ismail dodged Calgary tacklers, not to mention a full can of beer thrown at him from the stands, to return a kickoff 87 yards for the touchdown that broke open a 22-21 game. The win gave Toronto its second Grey Cup title since 1952, and the league a new lease on life.
And those weren't the only dividends that the McNall group's investment—the three principals put up $5 million for the Argos, and then McNall signed a contract that guaranteed Ismail at least $18.2 million over four years—had paid. Ismail's first-year salary was $3.5 million, but according to McNall, Toronto's gate receipts in 1991 were about $3 million more than last season's and advertising revenue had increased at least $1 million. "I'm certain we at least broke even on the deal," McNall says. "More important, the value of this franchise and every franchise in the league is up because of it."
Actually, how Rocket played this season was secondary to the impact his signing had on Canadian football fans. (He led the CFL with 2,959 combined rushing, receiving and return yards, but he was runner-up to British Columbia Lions back Jon Volpe in the Rookie of the Year vote.) "When you start a fire, the first thing you get is a spark," Ismail said the day before the Grey Cup. "I'm that tiny spark. That's my role in this league."
And it will continue to be his role in 1992. "I'll definitely be back next year," Ismail said after the game, doing his best to refute rumors that he would soon sign with the Los Angeles Raiders, who own the NFL rights to him.
While McNall believes Ismail will return to the Argos, he says he won't stand in the way if Rocket decides to fly south. "I don't own people," says McNall. "The last thing I need is an unhappy superstar. It's hard for people in the NFL to realize he's happy. And I know he is."
On Sunday, Ismail returned four kicks for 183 yards, five punts for 70 yards and caught two passes for seven yards to finish with 260 combined yards and the game's MVP award. "Give him a raise!" running back Michael Clemons called out to Ismail in the winners' locker room.