The Way of the Pinball

Gridiron Underground Blog

The Way of the Pinball

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Ever wondered how you might persuade a group to follow you into battle, walk out in protest against the food served in the cafeteria, or perform a polar bear plunge into Lake Ontario in February? 

Maybe you’ve seen the video online. The inspirational locker room pep talk by Toronto Argonauts’ head coach Michael “Pinball” Clemons before the 2004 Grey Cup game against the B.C. Lions. This is everything you imagine a pep talk to be, a passionate winning of hearts and minds directed toward a single purpose. I used this clip in the original film version of Gridiron Underground, the film that prompted the writing of my book of the same title.

You can watch as Pinball — most of the country knows him by this moniker — works the room, the modulation in his performance ranging from near frenzy to calmness. The players in his charge are about to take the field to compete for the nation’s top football prize. If victorious, he will become the first black head coach in the history of the Canadian Football League to win the Grey Cup. But he is not thinking about personal glory at this point. He wants to win this game for his players, because at this moment they are more than a collection of paid professionals. They are family.

 “Part of it is this,” he punches his open palm for emphasis, “if you truly care about somebody, and you’re willing to work together with them, and you’re truly willing to do it, not just for your own good, but for their good first. When you think about somebody else first they truly become family.”

And how do you demonstrate your love for your brethren in the gridiron trenches? By paying the required price. You have to hit somebody. And you have to keep on hitting for sixty minutes. Because if you let up for even a minute, you are letting your family down. And family is what’s important, even in football.  

“What’s the word?!” he demands.

“Hit!” they respond.

Not the kind of message you deliver as a driving instructor, but it plays well in a locker room. That’s what makes football unique, the hitting. There’s no escaping it. Every play begins with the crashing together of two opposing lines of armoured bodies. Out of this organized mayhem comes a moment of success or failure. Then they line up and do it all again. 

“We’re talking about playing this game at a level that nobody, nobody, NOBODY in ANY LEAGUE, ANYWHERE, has ever played this game!”

And in case they have forgotten what it takes to get to that level …

“What’s the word?!”


No one says a word but there is a distinct buzz in the air. The team is on the Launchpad waiting for release.

“Who are we?!”




And suddenly the show is over. Like that moment in the theatre when the screen goes dark and the credits pop up before you even realize the movie is over.  Players rise to their feet, elevated in some psychic way. The message may be familiar, but the execution is flawless. For the one minute and thirty-five seconds it takes for Michael “Pinball” Clemons to deliver his pre-game speech, each player has forgotten his own fears and anxieties. He is part of something greater.

One team. One family. Grey Cup winners.



James R. Wallen

Posted by Kendra on March 27, 2018
James R. Wallen photo

James R. Wallen

James R. Wallen is a writer and filmmaker. He has written professionally for television, radio, the stage, and film, including documentary, animated, and feature films. He has also published two novels. His documentary film Gridiron Underground aired on PBS in 2017. James lives in Sarnia, Ontario.