It was an unusual year for all sports, but even more so for the CFL.
In conversations about the league over the past six months, the focus has mostly been the cancellation of 2020. Why didn’t the CFL go ahead with some sort of season as almost every other professional league ended up doing?
How would the 2020 CFL season have unfolded? Who would have lifted the Grey Cup? Lost forever are the teams built for 2020 that will never assemble. The players for whom fans never had an opportunity to cheer. Teams change every year, players move on, that’s the nature of sports. But there aren’t even memories this time, just the ghosts of what never was.
Last offseason, the Toronto Argonauts signed an astonishing 60 new players. Due to the lost season, 30 of these athletes will never even get a chance to throw on an Argos jersey. They or the Argos have moved on. Some are with other CFL teams, some are free agents once again, and some have retired from football.
Matt Nichols obviously stands out on this list as he was poised to become the face of the franchise a year ago. Optimistic fans bought Nichols jerseys, and who could blame them? In a league where purchasing a jersey that won’t be quickly outdated takes weeks of research, it seemed as safe a bet as any. Not getting to see him in 2020 was a big loss for Argonauts fans. He isn’t a flashy player, but he is a smart and experienced starting quarterback. A professional. His quick reads and short accurate passing game would have looked very different to Toronto fans coming off two seasons of James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson. Fans, and the organization, for that matter, seem more excited about Nick Arbuckle than they ever did about Nichols. It’s hard to say if it will even seem odd when the Argonauts take on the REDBLACKS this season and the two quarterbacks face one another. On the broadcast they will call him “former Argos quarterback, Matt Nichols”? Was he though?
Toronto-born Natey Adjei wasn’t the most high-profile signing of last offseason, but Argonauts fans who truly love the Canadian element of the CFL will be disappointed he didn’t get to suit up in 2020. Adjei was drafted by the Argonauts, but he didn’t get much of an opportunity. In Edmonton, he established himself as a starter. The excitement in seeing him come back to Toronto, as a finished product, was multiplied by the fact that he would be playing alongside his childhood friends Juwan Brescacin and Dejon Brissett. The three Argonauts receivers grew up just blocks apart in Mississauga and this would have been the first time they’d get a chance to play together. Homemade banners with nicknames for the trio like “The Canadian Air Force” and “Square (Force) One” will sadly never fly at BMO now that Adjei has moved on to Montreal.
It’s been a while since the Argonauts had a player like Bo Lokombo on defense. Largely used as a linebacker, there was some speculation among Toronto’s defensive players that Bo was brought in to play defensive back. He looked, measured, and hit like a linebacker, but he certainly had the speed and coverage ability to play the interior DB spots, plus he’d seen some action at safety. With the also-now-departed Chris Ackie expected to be the 2020 cover backer, would Lokombo have played boundary half? Free? How many highlight-reel-hits and accompanying crowd reactions will never be heard echoing off the walls of the Exhibition Go Station pedestrian tunnel? The Toronto defense as a whole in 2021 will be better than the 2020 unit ever had a chance to be, but seeing Lokombo light up Ti-Cats in that stacked Argos secondary would have been gratifying.
And was there a bigger defensive signing for the Argonauts in 2020 than cornerback Tommie Campbell? After a five-year NFL career, Campbell strung together four outstanding CFL seasons in Calgary and Montreal, and was an East Division All-Star in 2019. With Campbell on their side of the field, Toronto fans could have timed defensive unit beer runs, knowing they wouldn’t miss any action. He was a pass-breakup machine, using his height and length to keep receivers off the stats sheet. He didn’t allow a single touchdown in 2017, and he started 17 games! What might have been...with Shaq Richardson at his side and Alden Darby helping overtop? But time moves on and Tommie Campbell retired on December 30th, 2020, after posting one of the best seasons of his career just a year earlier. Would playing in 2020 have changed that? Would he be preparing for a second season in Toronto right now?
Nichols, Adjei, Lokombo, and Campbell were going to be leaders on the 2020 Argonauts, their positions were secure. But what about some of the more intriguing characters on that 2020 team? WR Kwadarruis Smith was the fastest guy on the roster in 2020. At 5’9”, 170lbs, the CFL was probably his only shot. He might have been the next Speedy Banks. What about Kolton Nelson, son of Special Teams Coordinator Mark Nelson? He hadn’t played football since high school, but his brother Kyle had a 10-year NFL career, and Mark says Kolton might be a better football player. Kolton had been skateboarding professionally and playing rugby in Australia for the past few years before deciding to give it a shot with his dad’s team. When the pandemic took over, Kolton reported to the intensive care unit as a health care worker in Louisville, Kentucky and never looked back.
There are a lot of new stars on the roster in 2021. New characters. New stories. But we’ll always wonder about the ghosts of 2020 and the stories that were never written. The celebrations. The head-hanging losses. The touchdown passes from Matt Nichols to Natey Adjei. The flying chest bumps between Tommie Campbell and Bo Lokombo after breaking up a pass from Ottawa’s Nick Arbuckle. They will all simply appear as an asterisk in the archives.
*There was no CFL season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.