Professional football player, coach
Football is generally considered a large man's game. Every once in a while, however, a pint-sized player arrives on the scene with skills so sublime that they more than compensate for lack of size. Standing 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighing 170 pounds, Michael "Pinball" Clemons, one of the Canadian Football League's all-time greats, was such a player. Since the end of his playing days in 2000, he has proven himself to be a pretty good coach as well.
Michael Lutrell Clemons was born on January 15, 1965, in Dunedin, Florida, a small town near St. Petersburg. His mother, Anna O'Neal, was 18 years old when Clemons was born. His father, Willie James Clemons, was attending Florida A & M University and serving as a student teacher at a high school in nearby Clearwater. Willie Clemons offered to marry Ms. O'Neal when she became pregnant, but she declined, having no interest in a "forced" marriage. The arrival of Michael effectively ended Anna's plan to become a nurse. Instead, she took a clerical job for the city of Dunedin, eventually working her way up to a management position in the city's utilities department. She ran the household herself, taking care of both Michael and her great-grandmother, who was blind. Up until he was in middle school, Michael spent part of each summer with his father, who was active in youth mentoring and outreach programs in his community. After that, however, contact between the two became less frequent.
At age eight, Clemons began playing football when he joined the Dunedin Golden Eagles, a team affiliated with the Police Athletic League. "Football was my first love, although I had success in other sports, especially soccer," Clemons was quoted as saying in a September 2001 article in the St. Petersburg Times. "Given the economic situation, I realized football could help get me to college…."
When Clemons was 13, his great-great-grandmother died, and the following year his mother married her longtime beau Ralph Bryant, a Clearwater grocer and machinist. Clemons and his mother moved into Bryant's home, and a year later the couple had a child, Kelli. Clemons adored his new sister, and she became his constant companion.
Clemons entered Dunedin High School at about 5 feet 5 inches and 150 pounds, hardly the ideal size for a football star. Initially, he was a defensive back, where his speed allowed him to keep up with the opposing team's quickest receivers. Soon, however, he became a two-way player, remaining on the field for practically the whole game. In his senior year, he received all-state honors in both football and soccer, but he had already decided to pin his college hopes on football. Because of his lack of size, he received fewer scholarship offers than a larger player with similar talent would have gotten, but he was eventually recruited by William and Mary College in Virginia, enrolling there in the fall of 1983 on a full scholarship.
During his freshman year in college, Clemons carried the ball only 26 times and returned a handful of kicks, but it was enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors on the team. More importantly, his upbeat, easygoing personality made him one of the squad's most popular players. Slowed by an ankle injury for much of his second year, Clemons was not able to assume full-time duties, though his number of carries did increase to 56, and he caught 16 passes as well. With his body healthy and a new offense in place that showcased his unique talents, Clemons had a breakthrough season his junior year, earning recognition as an Eastern Collegiate Athletic Association All-Star. His senior year was even better. He cracked the 1,000-yard mark in rushing, and, even more impressively, averaged over 25 yards on his punt returns. He was named first-team NCAA Division I-AA All-American
Despite his impressive numbers, National Football League teams were leery of drafting such an undersized player. Clemons lasted until the eighth round of the 12-round 1987 NFL draft, when the Kansas City Chiefs finally selected him. The 1987 NFL season was shortened by a player strike, giving Clemons little chance to make his mark. Citing his lack of size, the Chiefs cut him before the 1988 season. He was claimed on waivers by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they released him after just one preseason game.
Resigned to the fact that his football career might be over, Clemons accepted an internship at Honeywell International and also worked as youth director at his church. In the spring of 1989, the Canadian Football league—whose wide-open style of play was more suitable for smaller players—came calling. After a period of fruitless negotiation with the Calgary Stampeders, Clemons was signed to a contract by the Toronto Argonauts. During his first year with the Argonauts, Clemons was used mainly as a kick returner. He quickly showed an extraordinary ability to bounce off of bigger defenders and keep going, earning him the nickname that would stick with him throughout his career, "Pinball."
The following season, Clemons' role in the Argonauts' offense grew, initially more as a receiver than a rusher. Within a few games, it was clear that Clemons was a very special player. By the end of the season, he had demolished the CFL record for all-purpose yards, with a total of 3,300—519 on the ground, 905 in receiving, 831 on kickoff returns, and 1,045 on punt returns. The performance earned him the league's Most Outstanding Player Award.
Clemons turned in similar performances for a total of 12 seasons with the Argonauts. He was a CFL All-Star in 1990 and 1997. By the time he hung up his cleats in 2000, Clemons had amassed 25,396 total yards, the most in professional football history—well over Walter Payton's NFL career total of 21,803. He also held a dozen team records. Upon retiring as a player, Clemons was named head coach of the Argonauts. While his magnetic, inspirational personality made him a natural for the job, he quickly recognized that coaching may be harder work that playing the game. "If you ever want to slow me down, just give me some paperwork," the speedy Clemons was quoted as saying in a December 2004 Maclean's article. In November of 2001, he was promoted to president of the Argonauts, and relinquished his coaching duties. The following year, however, he moved back into the head coach position, and has held it ever since. In 2004, Clemons became the first black head coach to lead his team to the Grey Cup, the championship of the CFL. As of 2007, he was already the second-winningest head coach in Argonauts history, with 60 victories and counting.
At a Glance …
Born on January 15, 1965, in Dunedin, FL; married Diane Lee; children: Rachel, Raven, Rylie. Education: William and Mary College, BS, business. Religion: Christian.
Career: Kansas City Chiefs, NFL, kick returner and running back, 1987; Toronto Argonauts, kick returner and running back, 1989-2000, head coach, 2000-.
Awards: CFL, Most Outstanding Player, 1990; CFL All-Star, 1990,1997; CFL, Tom Pate Award, 1993, 1996.
Addresses: Office—Toronto Argonauts, Rogers Centre, 1 Blue Jays Way, Suite 3300, Toronto, ON, M5V 1J3.
Clemons, Michael "Pinball," All Heart: My Story, HarperCollins, 1998.
Lefko, Perry, Pinball: The Making of a Canadian Hero, Wiley, 2005.
Maclean's, December 27, 2004, p. 32.
St. Petersburg Times, September 16, 2001, p. 5.
Tampa Tribune, November 3, 1999, p. 3.
"Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons, Head Coach," Toronto Argonauts,http://www.argonauts.ca/Argos/Team/ClubDirectory/clemons_mike.html (September 2, 2007).
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