Famed former Toronto Argonauts' running back, receiver, returner, head coach, vice-chair and philanthropist Michael "Pinball" Clemons was named to the 2016 class of inductees into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame this week, leading an impressive cast. Clemons spoke to 55-Yard Line this week, and said the honour first brought up memories of what his family did to get him to this point.
"The first thing that I thought about today, they're making the induction and they're talking about all the things that I've done, and the very first thing that came to my mind was what was done for me," he said. "More specifically, my mom who as a single parent sacrificed so much and didn't just support me athletically, but made academics an emphasis, and all the sacrifices that she had to make as an 18-year-old kid who had lost both her mom and grandmother already, and was raised by her great-grandmother who went blind around the time I was born. That whole scene just resonated with me, and how she was much more responsible for me being in this position today than I am myself. So that was the first thing. What does it mean to me? I’m just so grateful, beginning with my mom, that I’ve been around so many wonderful people who have helped me to reach this point in my life.”
Although Clemons recently became a Canadian citizen, he's one of the few people not born in Canada (he was born in Dunedin, Florida) to earn induction into this hall. He made such a prominent long-term impact on Canada that it would be hard to quibble with his induction, though. Nine years ago, Clemons wrote the Hall introduction for another American-born athlete who made a huge impact on Canada, former Argos' teammate Doug Flutie. Now it's Clemons' turn to take the spotlight. He said he's thrilled to be recognized with a rare honour like this, especially given what Canada has meant to him and the opportunity it's given him to give back through his foundation.
"I often say that beyond my wife and kids, Canada’s maybe the greatest gift I’ve received in my whole life,” he said. “There are some things like health that you don’t want to understate, but Canada has been a tremendous gift for me, and not just the opportunity to play but to come and build a life. Our little foundation has partnered with Free The Children to build over 200 schools and classrooms in developing countries, and further to that, we’ve had a chance to influence so many lives in our local communities, in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. Past the football, the greatest gift is the opportunity to give. Coming from a background where my mom was very resourceful, and so she didn’t take a lot of handouts, she kind of passed lots of those things to those who may have needed them more, but in the essence of coming from a community where I was an object of philanthropy to be put into a position where you have—and we all have the ability to give, Martin Luther King said we all can be great, because we all give—so I don’t want to overstate it, but we’ve just sort of been put in a position of being able to give and encourage and inspire other people who might be in a similar position to I was as a kid.”
Clemons said he was treated so well when he first came to Canada (in 1989) that it convinced him to stay in the CFL rather than try to the NFL again (he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1987 and played eight games for them that year). He said he felt Canada was where he needed to stay.
“Early on, I had the chance to come back to the NFL and give it another try, and I really felt like Canada had sort of given me a rebirth, and there was a part of me that owed that to them,” he said. “There was just a feeling of comfort. There’s a gentleman named Steve Kearns who works with Athletes in Action, and he made a very simple statement. He said “When you think about it, I just want you to think about going where you can make the greatest impact,” and then he continued by saying “Go where you can make the greatest impact,” so that was a big part in determining that as well. I still remember that statement that he made 20 years later. I felt comfortable right away in the community, I was able to make an impact. And, you know, the crazy thing about coming here was how different…one of the most astonishing things when I arrived was how different it wasn’t. It truly was North America. So for that reason, it felt comfortable from day one, the place where I was working and playing and building a platform to help and influence others.”
Clemons said while his football success helped to give him his current platform, he wants to encourage youth to pursue educational goals as well, as that's also been crucial for him.
“I just want to say what a wonderful platform sport is as an enabler for life, and I really just want to encourage young people to find that balance," he said. What I believe my success is all about, that I had in athletics, was by combining that with academics, because education is the number-one determinant of our life’s health, wealth, freedom and family. It’s amazing that the more education that we have, the healthier we are at every point in our lives. I don’t want to tell young people what to do, they’re smart enough to make their own choices, but when you do well in education, and that’s not just traditional education—going into the trades, IT, technology, really different disciplines—but education, the better we do, it just gives us more opportunities. So the idea is don’t limit yourself. Sport is a wonderful tool, but when you combine it with education, it’s just unstoppable.”
Clemons and the rest of the 2016 class will be inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame at a special gala in Toronto this November.