Without a hint of regret or hesitation Toronto Argonauts defensive tackle Adriano Belli said bon voyage to the Canadian Football League on Wednesday.
Aboard a tall ship in Toronto’s Harbourfront, dressed as a sailor, with cheerleaders on each arm, Belli officially retired after 10 CFL seasons.
“In the preservation of quarterbacks across the Canadian Football League, I’ll be stepping down from my duties of defensive tackle and I’m proud to do so as a Toronto Argonaut, in my hometown,” Belli told the crowd of friends, family and teammates gathered on the Tall Ship Kajama.
“I’m happy knowing every down I’ve ever played I’ve given it 100 per cent. I’ve been so blessed. I’ve been coached by some of the greatest coaches in the CFL, I’ve played with some of the coolest guys around, I’m blessed to have played this long.
Belli, 33, wrestled with the decision about his future before finally deciding his body couldn’t handle the rigours of another season of “crushing” quarterbacks.
Known across the league as the Kissing Bandit for his Italian-style pecks on the cheek he readily offers, Belli was a two-time CFL All-Star and won a Grey Cup with the Montreal Alouettes in 2002.
Argonauts head coach Jim Barker will remember Belli for his actions off the field.
“What he leaves is a legacy of what the CFL is all about. It’s about touching our fans, touching our communities, and that’s what Adriano has done – sometimes he touches us too much, and I know he touches opposing players too much.”
Belli spent most of the afternoon praising the CFL, the Canadian experience and boasting about preserving “our game.” Interestingly though, also in attendance were Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug, a Toronto councilor – both of whom have been outspoken about bringing an NFL team to Toronto.
Despite the negative side effects that would likely have on the CFL team in the city, Belli was chummy with the Fords, posing for several photos and asking if they could swap jobs for a day.
“No problem,” the Mayor said.
Belli had a long and circuitous career before settling in with the Argos for his final four seasons. After a career at the University of Houston, he went undrafted in the NFL draft but signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2000. He played in the doomed XFL with the Las Vegas Outlaws in 2001 before becoming a regular in the CFL where he also spent time with the Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Belli was a fierce competitor with a reputation as a dirty player. Argonauts teammate Rob Murphy, who Belli called “the second dirtiest player to ever play in the CFL,” remembers being on the other side of the ball against Belli.
“I came into this league six years ago and we were rivals, to say the least, for three years when I was in B.C. We did our share of grabbing each other in the pile.
“I’m happy to call Adriano Belli one of my best friends. He is a true, true teammate; he would do anything for you. He’s got a heart of gold – a little bit misunderstood … but there’s not a better teammate that I’ve played with.”
Belli has plenty of projects to keep him busy now that his football-playing days are over. He runs a meat distribution and packing company with this family and vowed to continue his efforts with the Big Kiss Fund, his foundation at SickKids Hospital in Toronto.
But don’t expect to see him on a CFL sideline any time soon.
“As Jim [Barker] would tell you, I’m not much of a football mind – I don’t think I’d be that good of a coach.”
Cheerleading on the other hand …
“The Argos have graciously given me the head coaching job for – the cheerleading squad. And I’ll spend a least a couple days a week training the ladies.”