Few people exemplify the qualities of personal excellence, teamwork, community leadership, and overcoming the odds better than CFL legend Michael “Pinball” Clemons. With boundless energy, Pinball’s talks centre on the potential for each of us to achieve anything we set our minds to. Unabashedly emotional and impactful, he shows audiences how to put heart into everything they do. Pinball appears in this year’s We Day line-up, alongside other amazing personalities including Colonel Chris Hadfield, Spencer West, Craig and Marc Kielburger, and Margaret Trudeau.
Michael (Pinball) Clemons grew up in public housing in Florida, living opposite the town sewer until he was 14. His single mother, who had attended a segregated high school, gave birth to him while she was still a teenager. He rarely saw his father, who remained miles away in another town while he was a boy.
To say his life wasn’t easy would be an understatement.
But Mr. Clemons, a black man who triumphed over personal struggle to become a prominent and widely celebrated member of the Canadian Football League, is not embittered.
Today a We Day ambassador and motivational speaker, if he reflects on his past it is to allow him a measure of how far he, and society, has come. His message is inclusiveness, a lesson learned as a person of colour growing up in the American south.
“None of us is alone,” he says during a recent morning conversation in which he lives up to the nickname given to him when he first joined the Toronto Argonauts back in 1989.
As he was on the playing field, nimbly dashing between opponents to grab the advantage, in conversation Mr. Clemons is a jolt of shiny energy, a forward-moving ball getting a high score for sheer positivity. A man on a mission.
“None of us is as good as all of us together,” he continues with a pep that makes redundant the day’s first cup of coffee. Mr. Clemons instantly focuses your attention. But not on himself, more on the causes in which he believes.
“When I was growing up it was I, I, I,” he says, referring to his singleminded ambition to graduate from high school with a football scholarship to Virginia’s College of William and Mary, his ticket out of a life on the margins.
“But these young people today are We, We, We. They are all about helping others, they are about giving to their communities and to the rest of the world. I wanted to support that.”
A naturalized Canadian citizen, Mr. Clemons joined We Day in 2009, volunteering to go into local schools in Toronto and Oakville, where he lives with his wife and three children, to boost the cause. He also pledged the support of his own Pinball Clemons Foundation to raise $1-million. He thought he was done.
But then a We Day trip to Kenya to help build a couple of much-needed classrooms in an impoverished community, worse than anything he had ever known, radically altered his plans.
“Two schools became a commitment to do 132 schools,” he says. “Now we are looking at 250 classrooms in addition to adopting a small community in Kenya through Feed the Children/We Day, and a couple more special projects in Ecuador. We will also be building some classrooms there.”
He’s now covering more ground than he ever did when playing football.
His good works have also taken him to Sierra Leone and Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and China, Haiti and India. “My mother raised me to be kind and giving to my community, and if I ever fell short I would know it,” he says. “But I had no idea that I could impact the world.”
He credits We Day, including founders Marc and Craig Kielburger and Me To We CEO Roxanne Joyal, with extending his reach. Their youth-oriented movement empowers young people with the belief that they can make a difference. It’s more than just talk.
“We practise inclusiveness. You have to volunteer in your community to be invited to attend, and so many have done this, they have given to their communities, and then they come and say ‘How can we do more?’ They are looking at the rest of the world,” observes Mr. Clemons, marvelling at the enormousness of it all.
“They’ve already been inclusive and they are engaging in bigger acts of kindness, spreading love not just in their own communities but across the planet,” he continues.
“And it is this movement that involves and moves more diverse cultures than I have ever seen in my lifetime.” And he has seen a lot. Enough to know how far he’s come.
“My life was starkly different,” he says meekly.
“And when I think of the diversity of experience that exists at this time it’s almost impossible for me to say how differently my own upbringing was. My mother went to a segregated school, attended only by coloured people. So look at how far we have evolved. But there’s still so much more for us to do.”
If he could wave a magic wand and create the world of his dreams, Mr. Clemons would see it as balanced and fair, where every man and every woman felt united and strong behind a shared cause of universal love and respect. Global interaction is the goal.
“How can I be comfortable with the luxury I enjoy when I know my brother is in pain,” asks Mr. Clemons, not expecting an answer. “It’s my desire to help others. And help others pursue the dream.”