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Dunedin grad tackles head coaching role

Michael Clemons will lead the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts.

Michael Clemons progressed from the playgrounds and football fields of Dunedin High School to the head coaching position of the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts.

The 12-year running back of the Argonauts recently was named coach by club owner/president Sherwood Schwarz. Clemons' playing days, though, are not over.

Holder of a dozen club records and several league records, Clemons plans to suit up for his final home game in an Argonaut uniform on Friday at the SkyDome when the Argos play host to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. After that game, Clemons will move to the sidelines and begin head coaching on a full-time basis.

At the end of the game, Clemons' No. 31 jersey will be retired. And in tribute to his renowned charitable work in the community, the Argonauts will contribute a portion of the evening's gate to charity.

Although his coaching experience is limited, Clemons, 35, feels that, in time, he can turn things around for the Argonauts, which are last in their division with a 1-7-1 record.

"I helped coach the Greenwood Panthers (of Clearwater) one year, then, as a senior at the College of William & Mary, I helped at spring practice," Clemons told the Times. "But I believe I know how to get the most of players. That is to treat them well, demand the most of them and hold them accountable.

"You don't have to be an authoritarian-type to do that. Look at Tony Dungy (of the Tampa Bay Bucs). Tony's a man with a lot of ethics; he's ethical and just. If you treat people ethically, they'll respond accordingly."

Clemons recited one of his favorite quotations, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to make his point: "No man can help himself without first helping others."

"I learned that from an early age from my mother," Clemons said. "She was a single parent at a young age who always had time for me and time to help others. She lived her Christianity. She taught me the importance of hard work and perseverance."

His circuitous journey to become head coach took 17 years.

He grew up in Dunedin, attending San Jose Elementary School and Dunedin Middle School, and playing youth football for the Dunedin Golden Eagles. He moved to Clearwater at the start of his freshman year at Dunedin High, where he excelled in three sports - football, soccer and track. In his senior year, when the Falcons went undefeated during the regular season, Clemons was named the Times 1982 All-Suncoast Most Valuable Player.

Dunedin High social science teacher and track coach Randy Lightfoot influenced Clemons' life considerably.

"He was a great influence on me as a rare black teacher who taught an academic subject and always dressed professionally," he said.

Although his high school yearbook mentions his hope of playing football for the University of Florida, the team never recruited him.

He entered Division I-AA College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., in the fall of 1983 and promptly made his mark as a 5-foot-7, 175-pound running back gifted with speed, quickness, agility and resiliency.

In four seasons, he amassed 4,778 yards catching and running the ball and scored 31 touchdowns. In his senior year, he compiled 2,000 all-purpose yards, including 72 receptions. He still holds second place in Division I-AA with 212.2 average yards per game.

Clemons was chosen in the eighth round of the NFL's 1987 draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, where he saw action primarily as a punt returner. He was signed by the Tampa Bay Bucs in 1988 and released during preseason.

The Argonauts came calling the next season, and the rest is history as he found his niche playing in the Canadian Football League, which was founded 1909, 11 years before the founding of the National Football League.

Clemons tore up the league with his electrifying running style _ he'd hit the line but bounce off and spin away from any obstacle to find open spaces and running room. Appropriately, he earned the nickname "Pinball," which has stuck with him for his 12-year career with the Argos.

His career accomplishments include being named the league MVP in 1990 when he shattered pro football's single-season combined yards mark with 3,300 all-purpose yards. In the 1995 and '96 seasons, Clemons teamed up with quarterback Doug Flutie, now with the Buffalo Bills, to lead the Argos to season-ending Grey Cup victories.

In addition, he has been awarded the CFL's annual award for the player who exemplifies outstanding sportsmanship and outstanding contributions to his community. His unselfishness and radiant personality have made him more than a sports icon in Toronto.

Clemons is married to 1984 Clearwater High School graduate Diane Clemons, his high school sweetheart. They have two daughters, Rachel, 6, and Raven, 3. They live year-round in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto.

In addition to his football career, Clemons is a part-owner of a Canadian collections call center company that he founded. His autobiography, All Heart, was published in 1998.

Clemons replaces John Huard, who tendered his resignation on Friday, Aug. 25.

Ann Bryant, Clemons' mother, thinks her son can help the struggling team.

"Michael communicates well with people," said Bryant, in her 33rd year with Dunedin, now serving as the supervisor of the utility billing division. At an early age, Clemons learned to overcome obstacles, she said. He has the desire and ability and the support of the people of Toronto.

"He can be firm but still have love for the players; he gives of himself and expects nothing in return. I'm confident he's up for the challenge."

Lightfoot isn't surprised Clemons has done so well.

"Michael was a tremendous person," said Lightfoot, who has taught at Dunedin High the past 29 years. "He was talented in all areas and always wanted to improve. . . . always wanted to be the best, athletically and academically."

"Michael had a good upbringing by his mother in a stable home environment. He learned to care about people; he puts them first ahead of himself," Lightfoot said. "He treats people with dignity and respect. Much like Tony Dungy of the Bucs, he'll command respect and therefore let each man grow to his full potential.

"I'm confident he'll be successful in his role as head coach of the Argonauts."