When I look back at my life, most of my favourite memories were when I witnessed a great moment in sports.
Growing up in Toronto, Canada was great as a kid. There was not a day where you can’t have a pickup game of any sport you could imagine in just about any of the City of Toronto parks, schools, football fields, soccer fields, and school gymnasiums. And let us not forget the holiest of the holies, the hockey rink. Oh yes, the grand old lady of them all, hockey.
You see, a lot of us could reflect on where we grew up as a kid. The beauty of that time was that you can just be a kid, and enjoy as much free time when you are a kid as much as possible.
So when I was a kid, watching a Toronto Maple Leafs game at the beautiful Maple Leaf Gardens was a pretty penny to spare. The nosebleed Gray section at Maple Leaf Gardens was approximately $25.00 Canadian. This would be equivalent to approximately $67.70 in 2023 when adjusting for inflation. Add in the Toronto Maple Leafs were a joke to watch under the ownership of Harold Ballard, and you get my point.
Why even bother spending hard-earned dollars towards the Cash Box on Carleton St?
So, most of my childhood friends and I would still watch hockey. But, we would rather just watch it on TV. Even if you got a ticket to the game, it was more about seeing the better opposition. Take your pick in watching the other 21 NHL teams at the time. Whenever the Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Winnipeg Jets, and the Calgary Flames, would come to town, those were the games worth watching. But once it went into the hands of the scalpers, get ready to shell out a paycheck, especially when Wayne Gretzky comes to town.
For me, I needed the next best thing. Both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Toronto Argonauts called Exhibition Stadium home. So, naturally, I gravitated toward the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Grounds.
And why not.
Both teams had consistent seasons and the postseason was, for the most part, the norm. Both of these teams were carrying the Toronto City Flag. My favourite Blue Jay of all time is none other than the late Tony Fernadez, while my favourite Toronto Argonaut of all time is without a doubt Michael “Pinball” Clemons. And getting tickets was a lot more reasonably priced to see either team. $8 to $10 gets you into Exhibition Stadium anywhere between the nosebleeds and a touch lower.
MY LOVE FOR FOOTBALL
Sometimes in life a love for something just finds you. Like when you go into a bookstore or a library. Sometimes the book finds you. Just like with other forms of art whether that would be music or film. Those would fine you also. Sometimes it’s just word of mouth which is still the best form of advertising to this day, regardless of the digital world we now live in.
In 1983 I was seven years old. The Toronto Argonauts would play the BC Lions at the newly built at the time in BC Place Stadium. I remember being at my Grandparent’s house where most of my family was tuned into the Grey Cup. I had no clue what football was about, as I still did not watch both hockey and football more frequently till I was eight years old for hockey, and nine years old for football. But the one thing I do remember was taking the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway from Finch Station on the Yonge Line, and heading south to Downtown with some of my Aunts and Uncles. Once we exited at Yonge and Bloor, we were walking on Yonge St in a south direction. All I saw were more people than I ever thought lived in the world all in one place. There were Toronto Argonaut colours everywhere. Then I heard a defining sound by the second:
And it would resonate throughout Downtown Toronto. This is my first football memory.
When I was nine years old, I began to follow a lot more football and I was hooked. Still to this day, I get a chill to watch a football game, especially when I’m at a live game.
In 1985, I would watch both the National Football League, along with the Canadian Football League as much as I could. When it came to the CFL, my natural fit for the team I would cheer for was obvious, it was the Toronto Argonauts. I mean it only made sense. They were a team in my backyard. For the NFL, I was amazed about the Chicago Bears. A hard-hitting team with an explosive running game. It was my type of football.
During this time, I would go to my nearest Toronto Public Library and read as many books on the history of football in both Canada and the United States of America. If I could not find much at the local library, I would visit the Toronto Reference Library. It is where I became a lexicon from a young age and read about more history, as I still do to this day. Let’s not forget, it was a lot harder back then when it was just magazines and books. It’s a lot easier now with the internet and YouTube to look at documentaries. Back then, it was all about what you can get your hands on. And what I was learning about was a lot. It was at the Toronto Public Library where I would read about the genesis of Canadian Football and American Football. Teams like the Sarnia Imperials, Toronto Balmy Beach, the University of Toronto, Queens University, Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club (competed in both rugby and hockey) Toronto Amature Athletic Club, and the origins of the Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tigers, now as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Edmonton Eskimos, now as the Edmonton Elks, Calgary Stampeders, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Ottawa Roughriders, now the Ottawa REDBLACKS, Montreal Alouettes, along with many teams that have come and gone in the history of Canadian Football. Not to mention McGill vs Harvard in 1874.
When it came to American Football, I would read a lot about that also. My reading was no different than that of researching Canadian Football. It was interesting with football in America. During its infancy, it was not socially accepted as baseball and boxing. Baseball and boxing were far more attended than football at the time along with radio ratings.
The College Football level had the opposite. Attendances were always strong but would not resonate in the pro game. Pro football in America was very industrial, to say the least. Teams like the Dayton Triangles, the Caton Bulldogs, Rock Island Independents, Akron Pros, Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears), Chicago Cardinals (moved to St. Louis, moved to Arizona, once called the St. Louis Cardinals, then the Phoenix Cardinals, and now the Arizona Cardinals), Rochester Jeffersons, Detroit Heralds, Cleveland Tigers, Chicago Tigers, Hammond Pros, Columbus Panhandlers, and the Muncie Flyers which all played in the American Profesional Football Association (APFA). Two years later, in 1922, it would be rebranded as what we know now as the National Football League.
It was here I would learn about more history, along with great dynasties, players and coaches. I fell in love with learning about the Pittsburgh Steelers from its inception to the domination of the 1970s with the Steel Curtain defence, my Bears the Monsters of the Midway with the legacy teams in the 1940s, along with foundational players like Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs, and some memorable plays like the Ghost to the Post, the Holly Roller, and the infamous Immaculate Reception. When you think about it was A Football Life as we know it today.
Well before the digital era we live in now, I was hooked on NFL Films along with NFL Gameday. Both aired on The Sports Network (TSN) during the week, along with Sunday.
What Ed Sabol created was nothing but perfection. Add in his son Steve Sabol, and what you had was greatness.
Ed Sabol had a vision like no other, the way the films were shot was in slow motion. The attention to detail of closeups on the line of scrimmage witnessing the cleats dig in the field and seeing the aftermath of the divots. From the closeup of players’ faces, and the physical abuse a player goes through on any given day. Add in the orchestra music, and you thought you were listening to an Ennio Morricone film score. And lets not forget the great John Facenda doing the voiceover.
In 1988 I was 12 years old. One day, I picked up the Bell Canada Toronto phone book at my house. I was just searching around the listed phone numbers. Then it hit me.
Why not call the Toronto Argonauts Office? They will probably give me free stuff just to say I’m a Toronto Argonauts fan.
I remember meeting a gentleman by the name of Brian Shaw. He was a ticket representative at the time. The phone call was approximately ten minutes or so and we had a great conversation. He then offered me a free VHS tape of the 1987 Toronto Argonauts Season in Review. I was then in complete awe.
During the week, I made my trek from D’arcy McGgee Catholic School towards the CNE Grounds. When I arrived, I saw the then-owner Harry Ornest. He was just about to put his feet up on his desk, and take a sip of coffee. As I went through the main doors, he got up and greeted me along the lines of:
“Hello, welcome to the Toronto Argonauts. How can I help you?
My reply was along the lines of “I’m here to see Mr. Brian Shaw, we talked earlier and said he would give me a copy of the 1987 Toronto Argonauts review”.
I then was allowed into the open office space and was amazed. A phone rang at an office desk that I was standing beside as I was talking to both Mr. Brian Shaw and Mr. Harry Ornest. Without any hesitation, I picked up the phone and said:
“Toronto Argonauts, Dino Sepe here, how can I take your call?
Without even listening to the response, I extend my arm out to whoever wanted to take the call. The other staff members working at the time are now laughing at what I just did, Mr. Harry Ornest included. As his laughter is now a bit more settled, he talks on the phone. It seemed like the phone call was for him anyways.
As I left the Toronto Argonauts Office that day, I felt a lot more wanted in football. The Toronto Argonauts to me were not just a team anymore, it was a sense of belonging, and still, to this day, the Canadian Football League as a whole is very sentimental to me. You are not just a fan, you feel that you are part of a CFL community that spans decades and a century and a half of history.
During the 1988 season, I go back to the phone book every so often.
And guess what?
Something triggered my brain again. I then begin to look up Toronto Argonauts’ players. I remember seeing then Guard Blaine Schmidt and Guard and Tackle Jim Kardash names in the phone book.
I can’t remember who I spoke to briefly. When I called one of them they did answer the phone. I then introduced myself as I was just a fan, and appreciated their hard work on the football field. We ended up talking for about five minutes or so. It was a cool thing.
Now you might ask how often I did this.
I’d say a maximum of three times. I was always one to always give someone their personal space. It would never fly now for sure. But that was the era I grew up in.
1988 was also the first year when I began to watch College Football. Along with my research, I instantly became a fan of the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football legacy with the alumni of Joe Montana, Raghib the Rocket Ismail, Jerome Bettis, Joe Thiesmann, and Tom Clements just to name a few.
During the winter of 1989, I remember being at the Crossways at Dundas St. W and Bloor St W. I was at an IDA Pharmacy location where I was scanning through some Toronto magazines.
I came across an ad regarding Minor Football. The North York Bandits were advertising for the upcoming season of the Central Ontario Minor Football League (COMFL). My initial thought was the wow factor. Minor football in Toronto was something that I did not know existed. Soccer, basketball, hockey, and baseball all had minor leagues. But this was the first for me.
After asking for my mother’s permission, I attended a training camp on July 1990. The only experience I had was playing touch football. I will say that my ego was in the right place. I never had an ego, to begin with. I did have good hands and a good arm. I was also pretty good as a kicker. But I knew that when playing contact, it will be a whole new level.
When I attended camp I fell in love with the process from the time I stepped on the football field. Being a rookie, the veterans on the team welcomed me with open arms, along with the coaching staff.
During training camp, I wanted to play any position possible. I did state that I’d like to play Quarterback. After throwing the ball once, the coaching staff did not like what they saw. I am left-handed, and to the staff, the “different spin on the ball” was what they did not like.
Throughout the season, I was primarily a Tight End. We played with a double Tight End set. For the most part, I was used more of a blocker. It was rare the ball was even thrown to me as part of any of the plays in our playbook.
Was I upset?
But my approach was that I’m a rookie, and I’ll take any playing time I can get. During practices, when we had some no-shows, I’d play Cornerback, Defensive Back, and sometimes Guard and Tackle. I was not a big kid by any means. I took every opportunity to show the value that I could for the better of the team. I would also be a holder sometimes, along with playing on all special teams. I loved playing on special teams.
We would go on to complete the season going 6-4. We would then fall short of the Scarborough Thunder in a Semi-Final.
PLAYING THE QUEBEC CHAMPIONS LAVAL TITAN
Every player that that breakout game when you least expect it. For me, it was in mid to late November 1990.
We got the news that we would be playing the Quebec Champions the Laval Titan. Rumour had it that the Burlington Stampeders, who were the current COMF Champions, were awarded a visit to Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and play a Florida minor football team. Our home field was Esther Shiner Stadium. News broke out that we would be playing the game at Ivor Wynn Stadium in Hamilton. Instead, we did not play in any of the venues. Instead, we had to settle for Northview Heights Secondary School which was used for our practices and training camp.
Talk about getting screwed eh?
In the game, we were hot off the drop of the hat. Our defence was stellar in that the Laval offence was unable to engineer any threat whatsoever.
For me I was opening up holes at will, my downfield blocking was pretty much second nature.
I’d finish off the day with 3 special teams tackles, and a fumble recovery.
My hard work would pay off in winning the Most Improved Player as chosen by my coaching staff.
I would go on to play one more season for North York in 1991. We were rebranded as the North York Seahawks. We would be knocked out again by the Scarborough Thunder once again in the Semi-Final.
YORK MEMORIAL COLLEGIATE INSTITUTE MUSTANGS FOOTBALL
I did not play High School Football in my first year. I was still playing minor football at the time.
In 1992, I tried out with my High School Football team. And what an eye-opener it was. Players that were as much as three times my size. It was intimidating.
Once again I felt I was a rookie again on my team. It did help that a couple of my teammates did play for the North York Bandits even though we a couple of years apart in age, and played in a different age brackets.
Once I survived Training Camp, I noticed that I was not cut. And that made me happy. I was the smallest player on the team, I was maybe 5′-6″ at the time and maybe was about 155 lbs. Even though I would work out as much as I could, these dudes were big, fast, and strong. I believe I made the team on my hard work ethic. It was also where I fell in love with my new position. I was slotted at times as second and third-string Inside Linebacker.
When it came to picking a jersey number, I chose the number 50. Being a Bears fan, and my love for hard-hitting defence, I wanted to wear the number for Mike Singletary who also played middle Linebacker.
We would go on to win the Toronto Secondary Schools Athletic Association (TSSAA) Championships defeating Leaside High School 30-7 at Brockton Stadium on November 11th, 1992 on Remembrance Day.
It would be the last game I was ever involved in. In 1993, most if not all of our graduating class when to university. It was difficult to fill up roster spots as we were short of bodies. I would still go through Training Camp, but my body was taking a beating. It got to the point that I was not able to compete with the physical demands any longer. So, I elected to walk away from the game that I love, with no regrets. I never had the physical size to play the game. I took a lot of big hits during my football life, but I also gave a few back. My teammates were thankful for that. I was the Rudy of the team.
CONTINUING BEING A FAN
After my school days, I continued to watch as much football as I can. Now with new technology in recording games on a PVR, it only makes things easier to review a full game.
I love researching more as I get older in life. You don’t have a present without the past. And as past eras are now embedded in football history, new ones are being created.
As records are being broken, they will be new ones to break in both the short and long term. It was the players of yesterday, that laid the foundation of pro football as we see now know it today.
For the future of pro football, it will only get better, aside from the CFL and the NFL, we now look at the growth of both the XFL and the USFL. This will only make football better when it comes to development, and also for fans. Let’s face it. It’s not cheap to see an NFL game. That’s where the CFL, XFL, and USFL can win more of a fan base where it is more of a fan-friendly environment.
Thank you to the founding fathers of this great game in both Canada and the United States of America. Steve Sabol is right. Life is great, football is better. Football is a beautiful thing.
So, this Sunday, February 12th, 2023, when the Philadelphia Eagles take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII, enjoy the game to its fullest. It’s a day of watching the game amongst family and friends. Really embrace the art of this great game. Because after all, football is a beautiful thing.
Stay in tune with CFL News Hub for the 2023 season.
Be sure to join Alt Football Reddit and connect with CFL and alt football fans.
Subscribe to our CFL News Hub YouTube Channel. Get breaking news and the latest CFL news. Plus the CFL Week In Review PodCast.
CFL News Hub Channel Trailer – Your News Source For The Canadian Football League
Get Alerts & Stay ConnectedCFL iPhone App
CFL Android App