"There's no place like home" -- Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz.
The road to the 2012 Grey Cup was not comprised of yellow brick. There were no lions, scarecrows or even tin woodsmen along for the journey. The final ingredient that provided the Toronto Argonauts with enough extra courage and heart to win the championship may have come from what the memorable quartet from movie lore was searching for all along - home.
Eleven players on last year's championship squad hailed from the Greater Toronto Area, a total of 15 called Southern Ontario home. While some of those players, most notably Ricky Foley, have left for various reasons, four new players on this year's active roster are from the GTA.
Jonathan Hood and Jermaine Reid are CFL veterans who have found their way into double-blue uniforms, while Shane Herbert and Jermaine Gabriel have the opportunity to take their first pro football snaps in front of family, friends and hometown crowds.
Gabriel is a native of Scarborough, in the city's east end. He played in the fall at Cedarbrae Collegiate, while his summers were spent starring with the Toronto Thunder of the Ontario Varsity Football League. He also spent some time coaching at Lester B. Pearson Collegiate.
The rookie defensive back is arriving just as his favourite player, long-time defensive star Jordan Younger, is leaving after announcing his retirement on the eve of training camp. Gabriel says that the two have crossed paths in the past.
"I used to sit all the way up in the nosebleeds and watch the games growing up as a child,” Gabriel said.
“I always used to watch the defensive backs, I watched Younger. I met him at e-camp, he was giving me a couple of pointers when we were doing the drills; it was pretty cool."
Meeting your idol is one thing, but lacing up the cleats with your favourite CFL team blows that off the charts.
"It's unbelievable, the love I get from everybody. Everyone is always checking up on me asking how I'm doing and how's the team doing” Gabriel continued.
“I feel like ever since I became an Argo everyone is like, 'I'm going to buy an Argos hat, I'm going to buy an Argos jersey and come out to all the games.' I've got a bunch of friends with season tickets now, so it's been an unbelievable experience."
Gabriel's fellow freshman has been through the pro experience before, but like the heroine from the movie, things turned out to be a bad dream.
Herbert is also from the east side of Toronto, hailing from Ajax. He played at Pickering High School and for the Pickering Dolphins and Oshawa Hawkeyes before heading to Wilfrid Laurier University, where he was a member of the Golden Hawks. He was signed as a free agent by the boatmen in 2011, but didn't make it through camp before being released. He looks like a completely different player this season.
"For the past year I've been working hard on my speed and strength,” Herbert said.
“Jim (General Manager Barker) knows the potential I had and when he saw me at the workout I know I impressed him through my off-season training and my hard work and effort. I was fortunate to get invited back and I'm just taking it step by step, day by day."
At 6'1" and 190 pounds, the defensive back has the body type and attitude that Argos defensive coordinator Chris Jones loves. In turn, Herbert loves playing in the system that the DC employs.
"I'm a more 'in your face' DB. I've got long arms, I'm a more rangy guy so it's easier for me to get up in someone's face and press a receiver and that's what Chris Jones loves. He loves the taller defenders that don't mind getting physical so I feel like I fit this defence quite well."
Herbert's favourite player as a kid was Damon Allen and he understands the unique opportunity to wear the same jersey as his idol.
"It's an honour actually to play for your home team and to have your family and friends come out to the games and support you."
Hood comes over from Hamilton after three seasons in black and gold. He appreciates the colour change and is thrilled to be donning the double blue.
"It feels awesome. When I was growing up that's all we saw, we saw the Argos practices, we saw Pinball Clemons and everyone. It's amazing, we used to look up to those guys and now I'm that guy, it feels great."
The man who lit up stadiums wearing number 31 was idolized by just about everyone who saw him play, but what was it about Clemons that drew the native of Mississauga, west of Toronto, to the running back's style?
"He was exciting to watch. He always brought energy,” Hood said. “It didn't matter that he was a smaller guy, it didn't matter who he was up against, he was just go, go, go and he made the best of everything and he won a lot of championships and he had lots of success."
Hood graduated from Father Michael Goetz Secondary School and also played for the Etobicoke Eagles before heading to a CIS career at both St. Francis Xavier and Western Ontario. He's certain that playing at home will be good for a jolt of adrenaline every game.
"I definitely think so because you have a lot of family and friends that get more involved in the league,” Hood continued.
“Even when I was playing in Hamilton it was close, but not everyone got involved. Now that I'm in Toronto everyone is coming to the games. I have to make sure 50 people get tickets, it's crazy. So it gives you that boost knowing that the support is there. Support is huge and it just gets you fired up to go and play your best."
The other veteran is Reid, who suited up for Hamilton and Edmonton before heading home. His six years of pro football may be a bit of a surprise, seeing as he never played any amateur football aside from at St. Mary's Catholic Secondary School in Pickering. He may have come to the game late, but it was certainly a case of love at first contact.
"It was probably after the first hit. It was an inside run drill. I just shed a block and I leveled the running back and that was it, it got me."
He was good enough at St. Mary's to head to the University of Akron, where he played for four seasons.
Now he's heading home. Reid had heard his name mentioned in trade rumours and was ecstatic to find out he was on his way back to where it all began.
"It was amazing, I'm going home, my family gets to see me. It was a good feeling, I was just thrilled when I heard the news."
But is there an added burden that comes with playing at home?
"Besides trying to round up 16 tickets a game it's really not that much pressure,” said Reid.
“Everything outside of the lines is washed away as soon as you cross those lines every game day, so I try not to think of any of that, I just put all that to the back of my mind and just think about the game."
The first game at home will be one the foursome will always remember. Not only is it against the Argos' arch rivals from Hamilton, but the 100th Grey Cup Championship banner will be unfurled before kickoff.
Friday's game between the Argonauts and Tiger Cats can be heard live on TSN 1050 and TSN1050.ca with Mike Hogan and Sandy Annunziata