TORONTO – He’s never played a down in the CFL but Cleo Lemon knows exactly what he’s getting into with Toronto Argonauts, thanks to none other than former league MVP Doug Flutie.
“I played with Doug in San Diego and he had nothing but respect and admiration for the league and he told me how great a time he had in Toronto,” Lemon said from Jacksonville, Fla., where he makes his off-season home. “Doug is a real great guy and I had the great opportunity to be around him and hear the great stories.
“The kind of success he’s had, all you can do is respect it.”
Flutie spent eight seasons in the CFL (1990-97) with the B.C. Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Argos. He was named MVP an unprecedented six times and finished his time in Canada by leading Toronto to consecutive Grey Cups (1996-97) before signing with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
He later joined the Chargers (2001-04) before finishing his career with the New England Patriots in 2005. Flutie is now a U.S. college football analyst with ABC and ESPN.
Lemon, 30, becomes the fourth quarterback Toronto has signed or obtained this off-season – and the club’s second in three days.
New Argos head coach Jim Barker wiped the club’s roster clean of its quarterbacks last month, releasing veterans Kerry Joseph and Cody Pickett as well as youngster Stephen Reaves.
He then signed former Buffalo Bills backup Gibran Hamdan as a free agent before acquiring Dalton Bell from the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Canadian-born Danny Brannagan, who led Queen’s to the Vanier Cup last year, came on board Sunday night.
Toronto finished last in the CFL’s East Division last season with a 3-15 record, missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
The Argos have since changed owners, overhauled their coaching staff and remodelled their roster.
The six-foot-two, 215-pound Lemon comes to Toronto after spending time in the NFL with Baltimore, San Diego, Miami and Jacksonville. He has thrown for 2,702 yards and eight touchdowns over his career, which crested with the Dolphins, where he started in nine of 27 games.
Lemon signed with Baltimore on Aug. 15, 2009 but was waived prior to the start of the season due to family issues. His 60-year-old mother, who had recently retired as an educator, underwent brain surgery after suffering five aneurysms and a stroke.
“That was a tough situation,” Lemon said, “living in the ICU and the waiting room for months at a time and helping her with her rehab.”
The good news is Lemon’s mother continues to make progress. She’s talking as well as eating and drinking on her own.
“She has a long road ahead,” Lemon said. “But I see her fighting every day and it puts perspective on my life.
“If she can make it through that and continue to fight, I definitely have a lot of football left to play.”
Lemon also has another reason to smile these days. A month ago, his wife gave birth to a girl, Madison.
“She’s starting to create a bit more havoc at home, but my wife and I are really excited,” Lemon said with a chuckle.
Lemon says having peace of mind off the football field will definitely help him on it when he arrives at the Argos training camp. Being able to focus entirely on the game will definitely boost his chances in Toronto as Barker has been adamant about wanting to bring a group of quarterbacks to camp and holding an open competition for the No. 1 job.
That was a major reason why Lemon opted to sign in Toronto rather than look for another job in the NFL.
“Once I saw that opportunity and how it presented itself . . . in any professional sport that’s truly a blessing,” he said. “If you’re allowed to earn that kind of opportunity, you have to try and take advantage of it.”
Lemon admits he will have to adjust to the nuances of Canadian football but says he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I think it’s exciting when you limit the opportunities to get a first down and only have those three downs,” he said. “You have to make every play count, you have to be accurate with the football and also take care of it.”
Barker agrees Lemon will need time to adjust to the CFL game but said he has the experience, mobility and arm strength to succeed on the longer, wider Canadian field.
“He’s very mobile, he’s got experience, he’s started games in the NFL,” Barker said. “He’s a different type of quarterback, maybe, than Gibran (who is bigger and more a pocket passer) so it gives us some options in terms of looking at different types of guys.”
Barker also said Toronto was able to sign Lemon thanks to the efforts of player-personnel director Greg Mohns before he was let go by the organization last month.
“Greg had put him on our negotiation list and I remember telling Greg that I really liked this guy,” Barker said. “I had seen him in San Diego and Miami and knew he had the qualities we were looking for.”