He emerged from the BC Lions locker room still in uniform, with a bounce in his step and a smile that looked like it might stay on his face well after he’d go to sleep.
Travis Lulay was beaming on Saturday night, having set some records while playing his most significant role in a game in over a year. His 436-yard passing performance was a career-high and was the most off the bench by a backup quarterback in CFL history. Per CFL statistician Steve Daniel, it was also the first win off the bench from a QB since Brett Smith did it for the Roughriders in 2015.
Lulay and the rest of the Lions would say the right things after the game: that the team came first and that the win was the most important thing, but everyone in that locker room also knew that Saturday was Lulay’s night.
“Having an opportunity to play again, I didn’t know if I ever would. When I walked off the field in Ottawa in 2014, I thought it was the last time.”
Travis Lulay on Saturday’s career outing
Travis Lulay entered the game for the Lions early in the first quarter (The Canadian Press)
Football is the most heartless of all sports. There’s a reason that coaches and players say “next man up” so often. The game chews its players up and spits most of them out well before they’re ready to go. At 33, the game seemed to have sufficiently snacked on Lulay. The 2011 MOP and Grey Cup MVP has dealt with a shoulder injury that he thought ended his short but impressive career. While he rehabbed from a knee injury, he watched Jon Jennings emerge as the team’s next No. 1 QB.
Lulay had to swallow his pride, take the backup role and a pay cut if he wanted to stay with the Lions. If that’s hard to read, imagine having to live it. Lulay did it.
“Travis is an outstanding person, first,” said Wally Buono, who had to restructure Lulay’s contract as the team’s GM.
“Not only is he an excellent quarterback, he’s had a great career and he’s had to overcome a lot of injuries with his shoulder. But the number one thing that you know about Travis is he’s a very good person.
“He understands, puts his priorities in the right places, checks his ego when he comes in to work. At the end of it, the success we have, a lot of it has to do with Jonathan Jennings. I think it’s also enhanced by how Travis deals with him, kind of big brothers him. He’s a great team player.”
Lulay lay at the bottom of a dog pile of players in Ottawa in 2014, trying to corral a ball that slipped out of his hand. When the bodies climbed off of him, the rain poured down on him and he was holding on to his right shoulder, which had already gone under the knife twice in his career. He knew what that meant.
“I think for me, having an opportunity to play again, I didn’t know if I ever would. When I walked off the field in Ottawa in 2014, I thought it was the last time,” he said on Saturday night (His gleefulness while relaying this is worth noting).
“Then the club kind of gave me a glimmer of hope and said, ‘We want you to try and be healthy. We think you still have some good football left in you’. They didn’t know for sure. I didn’t know for sure if my shoulder would ever come around.
“It was slow and it really wasn’t there at the beginning of 2015. I missed a lot of reps in training camp because the shoulder wasn’t there and I didn’t have the arm strength that I was used to playing with. It was different for me and it was an adjustment. We had a whole new coaching staff and all that. 2015 was a bit of a… it was some adversity.”
Lulay sprained his MCL in early September that season, and it was here that Jennings showed he could be the Lions’ starter. While Lulay’s knee was healing, he realized that his shoulder was finally feeling better.
“Here I am without an opportunity to play when my arm was starting to come around,” Lulay said. This is also where a player with a lot of pedigree did something that many players in his position wouldn’t be able to.
“I’d developed a really good relationship with Jon to the point where I knew this was a good young player. I’ve said it before, but if I didn’t believe that Jon could play, I would have been banging Wally’s door down, saying, ‘What are we doing?’
“But Jon has played really good football for this team, so because we’ve had that relationship, because of my appreciation for my shoulder coming back when I didn’t know if it ever would, those are the things that help me sleep at night.”
In the locker room on Saturday night, the Lions celebrated their most veteran player, giving him a game ball.
“This man has been our silent leader,” running back Jeremiah Johnson told the room. “He’s been sitting there chilling and he got his call today and he did his thing.”
With Jennings standing next to him, Lulay said he played for Jennings and that he’s been there, he knows what it’s like to overcome an injury.
“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a special moment for me in my career, this win right now. But it means more for this football team,” Lulay said.
As the room emptied out and the team got ready for its long flight back to Vancouver, Jennings said he was proud of Lulay.
“I expected nothing less, but for him to come in and throw for over 400 yards is phenomenal. We haven’t had that all season,” he said. “He stepped in. That’s the role of a backup but you don’t always expect him to come in and do that. He came in and played a crazy good game.”
Jennings has gained the most from Lulay’s sacrifices. He’s had a veteran QB to push him in practice and to help him transition into being a full-time starter in the CFL.
“It would be super tough being in that position, but that shows you the maturity of Travis and how he understands that it’s not all about him, it’s about the team,” Jennings said. “I’m in that same role (sitting out the game). I’m just proud of him tonight.
“He’s a guy that he comes to work every single day. He’s not the starter but he works harder than most of the guys on the team. He’s a guy that shows consistency and it’s paid off. I was expecting nothing less. He came in and did his thing.”
“Everybody has a journey,” Lulay said. “Everyone has a story and I was just excited that tonight was another part of it.”