It’s a sweltering day in the middle of July and Michael “Pinball” Clemons is looking out for his fellow man: he’s offered me a T-shirt.
It’s hot. Really hot. The temperature inches towards 35 and with the humidity it feels well over 40. The heat is so intense cookies are baking in cars and, in the best interest of humanity, Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey and Taylor Lautner have all been court-ordered to keep their shirts on. Not the kind of day to get all trendy-professional in a collared shirt, tie and dark blue jeans; nor the kind of day to drive with a busted AC. Clemons seems to have picked up the scent (possibly quite literally) of an uncomfortable house guest and offered relief in the form of bottled water and a fresh shirt. The H2O is understandable — that’s just good manners — but a shirt, to a man he may never see again? He can’t be serious.
“I’m serious,” he says, smiling broadly. We’re setting up for the first round of the photo shoot in the backyard of his Oakville home, but he’s motioning, as if about to demonstrate why many considered him the most exciting running back in the history of the Canadian Football League (CFL), towards the sliding door that leads into the kitchen. “I’ll get you one.”
Clemons’ generosity is as conspicuous as his talent on the gridiron. Throughout his 12-year tenure as a Toronto Argonaut — where he set numerous team records, and a CFL record for the most combined yards in a career (25,438) — and the eight seasons he was acting head coach of the Double Blue, where he recorded the second most wins in Argos history and was the first African American to appear in and win a Grey Cup, Clemons was always known for giving back. He’s a regular at charity events and galas, liberally donating his time to causes of all sizes and scope. The night before, for example, he was in Oshawa for the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup, supporting the Canadians in a tough loss to the U.S. The T-shirt offer is par for the course in Clemons’ personal playbook. He’s a classy guy, and that’s just what classy guys do.
Poolside, Clemons looks the part. He dons a cool grey Without Prejudice suit, a chequered Emilio Guido dress shirt and floral-pattern tie of varying shades of blue, and black De Marchi Oxfords — all accented by a clean, puffed white pocket square. It’s a sharp look, a manifestation of his classy character. Half a dozen other ensembles cover his kitchen table to give an idea of what his collection holds. From a salt-and-pepper grey suit with black piping accents, to a burgundy suede jacket that reveals a paisley pattern in the right light, over 50 suits occupy Clemons’ wardrobe. “That’s my guilty pleasure,” says Clemons, who is currently the vice-chair of the Argos. “It’s not cars or fast things. It’s clothes.” He estimates, however, that he suits-up 200 times a year, so it’s one that deserves investing in.
Clemons describes his personal style as “classic” but unafraid of colour, and credits Jack Skurka of Classica Imports for keeping him “consistent” and “on the cusp” of the day’s trends. “We try to take the classic foundation and make it a little bit more exciting,” he explains. Because of his extensive collection, he’s a bit more particular about what he adds to his arsenal these days. It must be pleasing to the eye, yes, and the quality must be there, but the name doesn’t carry that same weight. There are basics that any gentleman must adhere to — but he has plenty of those. Anything new must have presence, more of a voice. He needs to either love it or feel like he can “take it somewhere,” he explains. “Some things stand alone and other things are worthy of coming with you. The stand-alone suit is what I’m looking for, and every once in a while I see a suit that can come along, that we can spruce up, that we can do something with.”
But all the style and flair isn’t just for esthetics — fashion sends a message. “It says, ‘I respect you’ when you show up at a meeting dressed properly,” he explains. “It says, ‘I’m not only happy to be here but I respect the company that I’m in.’” Even on unbearable days like today, Clemons always shows up looking the part, adding, “I think it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed as a general rule.”
But where did his inclination towards attire, this polite demeanour, come from?
“It was my mom,” he says. “She always wanted me to look and be presentable.”
Clemons’ upbringing is a far cry from the tasteful, modest luxury of his current residence. He was born and raised in Dunedin, Florida, by his single mother, Anna Marie Bryant. The pair lived in a small apartment in the projects for a good hunk of Clemons’ life. They didn’t have much, but his mother never complained, never made excuses. She kept a clean, well-appointed home, and ensured her son looked and behaved the same, especially on Sundays. “The idea was you always give God your best,” he says of dressing for those early church-going days, a tradition he carries on today.
Clemons’ mother was the embodiment of the maxim “practice what you preach.” Her upbringing was far from easy — losing her own mother when she was five, followed two years later by her grandma’s passing due to complications with tuberculosis. But she always led by example, be it organizing her lunch breaks so she could pick her son up from school, helping neighbours or her exquisite penmanship. “She taught me by living it,” Clemons says. “Her consistency illustrated the importance of it all. She was always there and always sacrificing.” It taught him the value of people, commitment and humility, a trait he exhibited on the field. The CFL Hall of Famer was never one for showy celebrations after a touchdown, and in a career as storied as his, there were many. In fact, aside from a few game balls commemorating career milestones perched atop the bookshelves lining his office, Clemons keeps few tokens from his athletic days on display — he feels it’s living in the past. “If what you did yesterday still sounds good today then you haven’t done much today,” he says, pulling one of the many maxims he holds close to heart from his repertoire.
Clemons is full of these sayings. He’s a quote factory, reciting both his own philosophies and ideas appropriated from various experiences and books:
“Every successful man is not always a successful father, but every successful father is a successful man.”
“Your circumstances are responsible for who you are, but you’re responsible for who you become.”
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love” — the words of Martin Luther King Jr.
Education has always played an important role in Clemons’ life. From his mother ensuring his homework was complete before allowing him to go out and play to his decision to attend the College of William & Mary, a more academic as opposed to athletic school, Clemons has always held education in the highest regard. It’s one of the key pillars of his charity, the Michael “Pinball” Clemons Foundation (MPCF). For years he was content to lend his celebrity to other foundations. There were so many great people doing phenomenal work it was enough for Clemons to support them. Causes like the Special Olympics, Easter Seals, the Children’s Miracle Network, the YMCA and Free the Children were just some of his favourites.
While he smiles effortlessly, and loves having a good time, Clemons explains that he’s a far more serious guy than most think. When it comes to charity, he embraces the role with earnest. As his charitable commitments grew — he was hitting, he estimates, close to 100 events a year — Clemons found at times his efforts were not always utilized adequately. He’s quick to explain that any philanthropic effort is noble, and that even the smallest events can grow into something substantial, but he couldn’t help shake the fact that some organizers’ intentions seemed misplaced.
“There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. Sometimes I get busy and not productive — I’m not a fan of that. I’m mad at me when that happens,” he says. “I found I was being busy a lot of times and that there are a lot of foundations and a lot of people out there who are just being busy and not being productive. It’s not my job to judge them, but maybe it is my job to do something a little bit different.”
Clemons finally gave in to the urgings of others, like Natasha Borota, co-founder of MPCF, and put his name on a brand. Today MPCF endeavours to empower those in need by, as their motto goes, “giving a hand up, not a hand out.” They work to raise money for organizations such as Free the Children (MPCF also secured a deal where 100 per cent of the money they donate goes into the field) and Habitat for Humanity (Clemons appreciates the fact they don’t just give people homes, but teach recipients how to manage their finances and contribute to society). “The two things I believe that create a healthy, happy, thriving civil society are character and education, and one without the other won’t do,” he says, adding a Clemonsized MLK quote: “Character without education leads to a lack of innovation. Education without character leads to corruption.”
“He came to us with this idea of building 131 schools over a five-year period,” explains Marc Kielburger, who, along with his brother Craig, co-founded Free the Children. Clemons was intrigued by the Kielburgers’ efforts in developing nations and wanted to get involved. “Sometimes when people make these big statements you have to take it all in stride. But with Mike, he was dead serious. Not only did he do those 131 schools he did it in two and a half years, which was just incredible.”
Kielburger explains that outside of the work he’s done in Haiti and Kenya and other developing countries, which includes bringing education to thousands of kids around the world, Clemons also has an uncanny knack for inspiring others at home. At Free the Children’s 2009 We Day Toronto event, Clemons had 16,000 students on their feet. “Everyone is so inspired by listening to him,” Kielburger adds. “The energy that he brings and the focus that he has and the example that he creates is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
Outside of the events and charities, family is the most important thing in Clemons’ life. He wells with pride describing the unique characters of his three daughters, Rachel, Raven and Rylie, noting that creating memories as a family is something the Clemons clan takes to heart. “As part of that whole dynamic of being a parent and helping children to grow and mature and all of those wonderful things is also creating those magical times,” he says. Every year they plan family vacations, often to warm destinations like Hawaii and San Diego. “We really treasure that time; we hold it close,” he says. As his daughters grow, he’s taking on a new project: he wants to do something special with each of his girls. His eldest, Rachel, for example, is an avid football fan (she loves watching the game with dad), so they’ve made it their mission to visit all 40 professional football stadiums in North America. Although they’re only about eight in, he’s looking forward to seeing them all with her.
Whether discussing his family, philanthropy or fashion, the genuineness and positivity beaming from Clemons is contagious. He’s a man of his word, who, like his mother, prefers to lead by example. He constantly pushes to better himself and the world around him. A class act — the classiest — all the way. With an attitude like that it’s hard not to be inspired yourself, to feel good about the future, even while at the mercy of relentless heat in stop-and-go traffic.
Only one regret creeps to mind: I should have taken that T-shirt.
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