Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Support pours in for legendary Argonauts' coach Cahill

One of the remarkable things about the world of Canadian football is just how small a community it is. Operating with mostly the same teams for over 50 years, everyone either knows almost everyone else directly or knows someone else who knows them. The latest example of that is the incredible outpouring of support for former Toronto Argonauts' coach Leo Cahill in just a couple of days after The Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons wrote a column about his health struggles. As Simmons describes, an incredible amount of people have written in from all over North America with words of support for Cahill and fond memories of his tenure with the Argonauts, demonstrating both the importance of the CFL's history and the close-knit community it still has today. There were memorable responses from other CFL legends like Don Matthews and Dave Ridgway, but it may be those from average fans that sum up Cahill's importance best:

But mostly, the responses came from almost every province, from names you wouldn't know, from an older demographic, some from the United States, from those who used to live here and have since moved away, all of them touched in one way or another by the former coach. It's amazing what people remember. They remember what seats they sat in at Exhibition Stadium. My dad and I were in Section J, Row 49. I got notes yesterday from those who sat in L and F and H. We were on the covered side of the stadium. We were the ones laughing whenever it rained.

And so many wrote in about father and son memories and the bond that any sporting situation can bring. If Leo Cahill did anything important in his time with the Argos - and he did lots - then the relationships formed between fathers and daughters and sons has to be near the top of any list.

"Thank you Mr. Cahill for being such an important part of a father and son bonding experience," a fan named Larry Henderson wrote. "My son and I now attend games ... and my son is always reminded of the glory days at CNE Stadium, which was always packed with fans and usually cheering for Leo and the Double Blue. Long live Leo. My dad always said you were the toughest of the Argos."

Cahill's toughness has never been in question, but he is facing significant odds. As Simmons described in his first piece, the 83-year-old Cahill's health challenges are getting worse and worse. Like many of his old teams, though, Cahill is refusing to go down without a fight:

"It's a miracle I'm alive," he answered, as I asked how he was doing. Cahill, the former Argo coach, general manager and Canadian Football League rogue, is 83 years old and struggling. "The doctors didn't think I would live through this," he said. "You know I'm a tough son of a bitch. But what the hell, you've got to fight, right? I'm not going to lie to you, though. It's been a tough go."

Cahill went in for heart surgery in London about a month ago and four hours into what should have been a four-hour operation, the surgeon came out to talk to his son, Terry. The doctor had bad news. Cahill's aorta had ripped during surgery. They were going to try and replace it. They weren't sure if it was going to work or if the patient was going to survive. The surgery ended more than four hours later.

"It was touch and go for a while," said Cahill, who lives in Sarnia, and was operated on at University Hospital in London. "But I'm home now, I'm up and walking around a little. I'm still pretty tired every day. They say it's going to be a slow process. That's what everybody says. I'm a little bit slow in my thinking and a little bit tired in my walking, but what the hell, I just keep plugging away at it."

That kind of incredible effort and determination despite continual setbacks personified Cahill's coaching career. He got his start with the Montreal Alouettes in 1960, working under Perry King, and stayed there until 1964 thanks to the appointment of new coach Jim Trimble. Montreal's loss was Toronto's gain, as Cahill moved west and took over the semipro Toronto Rifles of the Continental Football League. He built them into a powerhouse, then took over the Argonauts just before the 1967 season and immediately made them a force to be reckoned with. The team only went 5-8-1 that year, but they made the playoffs for the first time in six years before losing to Ottawa. They got even better the following year, going 9-5 and making it all the way to the East Final before again falling to the Rough Riders. It's 1969 that provided one of the most notable moments of Cahill's tenure, though; the team went 10-4 in the regular season and advanced to the East Final to again face Russ Jackson's Roughriders. They were favoured to win this time, and took the first leg of the two-game series 22-14 in Toronto. As described in Stephen Drake's excellent book Weird Facts About Canadian Football, that prompted Cahill to be his usual quotable self, with memorable results:

Two days after the first victory over Ottawa, at a luncheon in Toronto, Cahill confidently stated, "It will take an act of God to beat us," and then followed up with another bold statement that the Argos were "physically better than any team in Canada." The press played up the coach's quotes, setting the stage for a grudge-filled match the following week in Ottawa.

The night before Saturday's game, heavy rain combined with a sudden cold snap turned Ottawa's Lansdowne Park into a skating rink. The Ottawa trainers outfitted the Rough Rider players with broomball shoes, while the Argos flopped around in conventional cleats. Led by the brilliant quarterbacking of Russ Jackson, Ottawa totally dominated in a 32-3 romp, winning the two-game series 46-25.

The Riders, their fans and the press weren't shy in throwing Cahill's divinely inspired words back at him. Some said Jackson (pictured above getting a pass away against Toronto's Mike Blum in that game) didn't need a ride to Landsdowne Park that afternoon; he just walked across the ice floes of the Rideau Canal to get to the game. Others said that even if the Twelve Apostles had suited up for the Argos, the outcome would have been the same.

That wasn't the only time Cahill's Argos seemed to have divine providence conspiring against them. They were a memorable bunch in 1970 from a couple of perspectives; they had one of the most talented teams in Canada and were also one of the only teams with plenty of long hair, making them the Canadian sports world's equivalent of rock stars. They turned in a strong regular-season performance, but crashed out of the playoffs in the East semi-final against Montreal. 1971 looked even better, particularly with the addition of standout Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann, and the Argos rolled all the way to the Grey Cup at Vancouver's Empire Stadium, where they took on the underdog Calgary Stampeders in a torrential downpour.

Toronto's offence struggled at first, and they trailed 14-3 at the half, but they stormed back. A "Tricky" Dick Thornton interception put the Boatmen on the Stampeders' 11 late in the game, down by only three points. Cahill opted to play it safe with two straight handoffs to running back Leon McQuay before a potential game-tying field goal attempt. The first one picked up four yards, but McQuay slipped on the second run and fumbled the ball; Calgary recovered and hung on to win. It was all downhill from there for Cahill and the Argonauts, as he feuded with owner John Bassett and general manager John Barrow. His team suffered plenty of crucial injuries and breakdowns and finished 1972 with a 3-11 record, leading to Cahill's dismissal soon afterwards. It says a lot about him and the luck he had that there was plenty of outrage at the time over his firing despite the team's record.

Cahill (pictured at right during his coaching days in an undated photo from the Argonauts' website) went on to a couple of memorable stints in the World League of American Football, and returned to the Argonauts twice more in 1976 and 1986. Things still didn't go his way, though; he helped turn the team around at the start both times, but they again lost a crucial game to Ottawa on a bad fumble in the 1977 East Final and collapsed spectacularly in 1978. His 1980s stint got them back to the Grey Cup in 1987, but they wound up losing 38-36 to the Eskimos on a late field goal. Cahill's 1988 Argonauts were even better, putting up a 14-4 record, but they were upset by Winnipeg in the East final and he was fired soon afterwards, once again brought down by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Sometimes it's too easy to conflate success with winning. Cahill is not currently in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, and those looking for a reason to keep him out would probably point to his lack of a Grey Cup ring. It's worth noting that games can turn on the smallest of circumstances, though, as Cahill found out all too well. Especially in the playoffs, when you're matching the best teams against each other, a win isn't necessarily indicative of superiority, but merely how the dice fell on a given day. Cahill built some incredible teams, was a key part of the Argonauts' rise from laughingstocks to national superstars (several times over!), and never gave up fighting despite cruel twists of fate that might have convinced many to pick a different profession.

This is a man who never quit, even when it would have been easy to. You can make a strong case for him as one of the most legendary builders in Canadian football, and hopefully he'll get Hall of Fame consideration in the coming years. Even if he never gets in to the official Hall, though, the incredible outpouring of support for Cahill demonstrates just how important he's been to the game and how fondly he's remembered by many. He might not be in the Hall of Fame in Hamilton yet, but he's already firmly ensconced in the legendary collection of figures kept in many CFL fans' hearts. For a coach who was always a man of the people, that's an awfully notable honour too.

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