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Hogan: Argos vs. Riders game will feature York U reunion

Mike Hogan

7/10/2013 9:16:52 PM

It doesn't have the history of Queen's or Western. It doesn't produce CFL players like Laval or the University of Calgary. But when the Saskatchewan Roughriders visit the Argos in Toronto on Thursday there will be a focus on a CIS program without a winning tradition or a national championship; York University.

For the last three seasons the only three York grads in the CFL, Ricky Foley, Andre Durie and Jeff Johnson, were teammates in Toronto. That relationship culminated last November with the 100th Grey Cup Championship. Foley moved on in the off season, inking a free-agent deal with the Riders. The native of Courtice, Ontario is ready to come home to among other things, pick up his Grey Cup ring.

"Jim (General Manager Barker) said he wanted to give it to me in person", Foley told TSN 1050 Radio. "I really appreciated that because the day (the Argos) had the ring ceremony we had to report for camp in Saskatoon."

Jeff Johnson played at York before the others. He arrived at the Toronto campus in 1996 before graduating after the 1999 season. He said the decision to join the then York Yeomen was twofold.

"My parents said I had to stay within the city, so it came down to York or U of T and it was about the program. The kinesiology program is very good and it presented a unique opportunity with the (football) program turning around and that was something that I wanted to be a part of", said the native of the Mimico region of Toronto. "It was taking a turn, they were starting to win and I felt I could help that shift."

York hit rock bottom between 1988 and 1995 when it lost 47 consecutive games. Johnson was the brightest star when the team became more competitive and he was the biggest reason for that improvement.

The program changed nicknames from Yeomen to Lions in 2003. It was then that the dynamic duo of Durie and Foley arrived. The running back remembers his initial impression of the defensive end.

"He was just relentless" said Durie. "He'd chase down guys like Jesse Lumsden for 40 yards just to make the tackle. He was good that way and he still plays like that and gives 100 per cent every time he's on the field."

Foley had never played organized football before his first season at York. He walked into then head coach Tom Gretes' office and basically asked if he needed a player. Never shy on confidence, Foley was certain he could play both sides of the football and be a star. He was a decathlete and a physical specimen. Needless to say, Gretes was happy Foley came to York to experiment with his new sport.

Johnson knew of Durie before he heard of the defensive end. They were both running backs at the CIS level and Durie was turning heads with his incredible runs, which can still be seen on his York highlight reel on You Tube.

"I heard about this running back up at York that nobody could tackle", Johnson told TSN.ca. "This guy Andre Durie showed up and he was unbelievable and he was crushing what I did every game and I thought that's fantastic!"

Durie started his pro career at running back, before Bart Andrus converted him to a receiver in 2009. It's at that position that he's made his mark, becoming a high-profile player in the CFL. Durie is a firm believer that the exposure the former York players get is invaluable to the program.

"I think (it helps) immensely. The guys saw the Grey Cup there and that's a part of Canadian history. It's three athletes that went through the same system they're going through now and were able to achieve something like that." Durie added "I think it's a little bit of inspiration that the kids can use to help them when they're out there."

I know they've struggled in the past couple of seasons", Durie said. "But with a little more hard work and some perseverance they'll change that."

Johnson agrees wholeheartedly. "It does wonders for recruiting", he said. "That's what kids want to see, they want to see who's made it to the next level and we had three of the guys on one team here in Toronto, I don't think you could help a program any better."

Current York head coach Warren Craney told TSN.ca that helping the program is something the three alumni have done and it's benefited his recruiting process immensely.

"We had our top recruits attend our fundraising dinner and Ricky, Andre and Jeff brought the Grey Cup, the kids were in awe. They've been great; they have all gone above and beyond to help the program."

It's not just what they've done on the field or at fund raisers. Craney says that the three amigos have been proactive on behalf of the Lions.

"If we're recruiting a receiver or running back and its close Andre will make a call for us. Ricky has done the same thing for several defensive linemen." Then the coach said with a laugh "I take advantage of what we've got."

Johnson, Durie and Foley will without a doubt get together during Thursday's pre-game warm-up, but there's no question that the family ties will be severed for the three hours that follow.

Thursday's game can be heard on TSN 1050 Radio at at 7:30pm et/4:30pm pt with Mike Hogan and Sandy Annunziata.