They stand quietly, about 40 strong, in the lobby of a nondescript glass and cement building in North York; a disparate mix of ages and race.
There are men in ties, a woman in a Sons of Anarchy T-shirt, someone else in a cowboy hat. They are here for the mundane task of getting accredited and fitted for uniforms as Pan Am/Parapan Am Games volunteers.
Suddenly, there is a palpable buzz. Michael (Pinball) Clemons, Toronto’s cheeriest public citizen, has burst through the front door unannounced. A revival meeting of goodwill erupts.
“You are what I epitomize as true heroes,” Clemons tells rapt onlookers. “Someone said, ‘I look forward to the day when the love of power is replaced by the power of love.’ I believe that’s what volunteering is.”
“Amen to that,” says a voice from the crowd.
A four-minute address by Clemons, touching on everything from pride and humility to love of community, ends with the declaration that, because of the people gathered before him, this will be the “best Games that’s ever taken place anywhere on any continent at any time. You good with that?”
There is another “Amen.”
Clemons, 50, is among his people — he is always among his people — hugging new friends, posing for pictures and making strangers feel like longtime confidents. The former Toronto Argonaut running back, coach and current vice-chair of the club is the “official quarterback” of volunteers, 23,000 strong, during the Games.
His role will be chiefly that of behind-the-scenes cheerleader, appearing at Games’ venues, talking up the troops and being his effervescent self.
“His smile is infectious, wouldn’t you say?” exclaims Ernest Namath, an 84-year-old on hand to pick up his yellow volunteer garb.
Clemons’ participation grew out of hosting the Pan Am ticket launch — an event for which he memorized the names of the 41 participating nations — because, he says, “sport changed the trajectory of my life significantly.
“In my specific instance, I couldn’t afford to go to university, but that opportunity came through a (football) scholarship. The confidence I gained through sport, the skills, the leadership, it helped me go to that next level.”
It is football, too, that brought Clemons to Canada, where he now has citizenship, from his native Dunedin, Fla. His three daughters with wife Diane were all born in this country.
“You know the Mandela quote, ‘Sport has the power to change the world.’ I’m a sport guy who believes in that and really advocates that sport is character. (Pan Am organizers) asked if I’d like to be more involved and my participation is without hesitation or reservation.”
And, yes, Clemons is a volunteer himself. He vows he will try to get to every venue where someone is wearing one of those bright yellow golf shirts during the Games.
“Our volunteers are the heart of the Games, so it’s my job to be a defibrillator sometimes,” he says. “It’s my job just to smile and say hi, encourage and keep them excited.”
It is a role that comes naturally.
“You can’t leave a conversation with Michael and not have a bounce in your step,” says Games’ CEO Saad Rafi. “He’s just a lovely, lovely, lovely guy.”
Clemons views his fellow Canadians much the same way.
That the Games quickly filled their quota of 23,000 volunteers, says Clemons, is a ‘tremendous reflection of who we are.
“One of the things I fell in love with about this country is the heart of the people,” he said. “People really do help each other out. It’s important to us.”