July 28, 2017

No punches pulled, at least on the field, for Lulay and Reilly

Geoff Howe/CFL.ca

They have been roommates and confidantes, fishing buddies and study partners. Cheerleaders for one another. Similar players, similar personalities.

Mike Reilly and Travis Lulay were brought together by the CFL and although the close relationship they have forged now goes much beyond football, the two quarterbacks with the long history and strong sense of mutual admiration will be at odds on Friday night and it has everything to do with the game each loves and has mastered.

When Reilly’s undefeated Edmonton Eskimos (4-0) play host to Lulay’s BC Lions (4-1), first place in the West is on the line and the and there will be no hesitation: Each wants to beat his buddy.

That mutual admiration society stuff only goes so far when crucial points are on the line and both Lulay and Reilly make it clear that besting the other in the marquee game of the week trumps all of the hopes and wishes they may have for each other.

“I hope Mike plays great, I hope he stays healthy,” said Lulay over the phone earlier this week. Then he chuckled. “But I don’t wanna see him celebrating after the game.”

“I’ll be a nice guy,” laughed Reilly during a separate conversation on Thursday night. “After we beat them, I’ll try not to celebrate in front of him.”

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On Friday night, Travis Lulay and Mike Reilly square off for the first time in four years (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Reilly promised to heap a fair bit of scorn on his pal when the two were to meet for dinner later on Thursday night. Lulay, you can assume, would be handing it right back.

“Only believe about half of what Mike tells you, he’s that type of guy,” a laughing Lulay had said at the end of his interview, informed that his buddy was next up.

That’s the way it is between close friends but what becomes abundantly clear during those two separate conversations is that these two football fraternity brothers have an immense amount of respect and fondness for each other and are indeed thankful to have each other in their lives, both personally and professionally. And it’s kind of amazing how each of them independently says some very similar things about the other.

“His competitiveness is the first major thing, for me,” said Reilly, suggesting that aside from the physical talent that Lulay possesses, it his his heart that stands out. “Just his will to win. His desire to win and to be able to rally the guys around him, not necessarily through words.”

“He’s a competitor,” said Lulay without hesitation. “That’s first and foremost. That’s the thing that makes him special. Obviously, he can make the throws and he’s a good athlete. He can run around and make plays outside the scheme of their offence. He’s a smart guy so he’s gonna put his team in position a lot of the times.

“Just last week, in Hamilton,” Lulay continued, “it’s a game (where) he’s got beat up a lot, their offence hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard. He’s gettin’ hit a lot but he just kinda finds a way to will his team to a win. That’s the kind of competitiveness that has allowed Mike Reilly to become one of the best players in our league.”

“We created a great relationship off the field. Spent a ton of time together. Played a ton of golf, did a lot of fishing, barbecues. We became family.”

Mike Reilly on his friendship with Travis Lulay

Mike Reilly (left) is pictured with Travis Lulay (middle) and Jarious Jackson (right) (The Canadian Press)

The personal matchup we’ll see at Commonwealth Stadium comes as a bit of a surprise, considering Lulay – the 2011 Grey Cup Champion and Most Outstanding Player of the Year – has been largely left on the BC sideline for two seasons, dutifully backing up and mentoring the Lions’ young and rising star Jonathon Jennings.

With Jennings being injured two weeks ago during a game in Hamilton, the 33-year-old veteran has been thrust back into the pocket and the spotlight, coming into the Edmonton game having racked up two wins and over 800 yards passing in those two games. Reilly and Lulay haven’t met each other on the field since pre-season of 2015 and not in a regular season tilt since Lulay’s Lions bested Reilly’s Eskimos in back to back games in 2013.

The two were fast friends when they got together in BC, when Lulay was emerging as the starting pivot for the Lions and Reilly, a year younger than Lulay, was brought in as practice roster depth. That was in 2010. Lulay was in his second year with the team and by the end of the season, he’d battled his way past Casey Printers and Jarious Jackson to the top of the charts. With Printers released, Reilly became the third-stringer by the end of the season and held that job in 2011 as well.

“He was a hard-working, analytical type so we got along right off the get go,” said Lulay when asked about his initial impressions of his friend. “He’s similar to me in that we’re analytical types. There’s gotta be a rhyme and reason for everything. We were just kinda film junkie buddies. We hung out in the weight room, hung out in the film room so that’s how we initially hit it off and then, obviously, Mike became the backup (in 2012) and he was like my right hand guy. Guys joked that we were connected at the hip during his time here.”

“With regards to football, it was an awesome opportunity for me,” said Reilly, looking back. “It sucked, at the time, not getting to play but I got to spend two and a half, three years just soaking up as much knowledge as I could. Learning from him. Teaching him some things, as well, but learning what it was gonna be like to be a franchise quarterback. I watched him go through the paces as a new franchise quarterback in BC.

“We created a great relationship off the field,” continued Reilly. “Spent a ton of time together. Played a ton of golf, did a lot of fishing, barbecues. We became family.”

Mike Reilly quarterbacked the Eskimos to a Grey Cup in 2015 after leaving BC (The Canadian Press)

They became such a family that Lulay was a groomsman when Reilly married his wife, Emily. They’re tight with each other’s parents and their families – Lulay and his wife Kim have three children while Reilly and Emily welcomed their first child last fall – getting together when they can, living about an hour and a half drive away from each other in the state of Washington. During the season, though, it is hard to find some quality friendship time, with a quick text here and there usually having to suffice.

“We FaceTime every once in a while, ’cause we’re just kinda showing off our kids growing up and stuff but it’s few and far between where we really get a chance to sit down and talk,” said Lulay, looking forward to his chance to reacquaint himself with his friend before the game.

They’ll rehash old times and maybe even give each other a jab here and there but the friendly one-upmanship will really be reserved for the field of play. No mistake about it. Lulay and Reilly are two of the nice guys in the CFL but as amiable and agreeable as they are off the field, they are equally relentless on it and there are no exceptions, not even for each other.

“Within our friendship there’s always been competition,” said Reilly. “But it’s always been friendly competition. We always wanna see the other person do well. I think we built that when we were teammates and were going for the same common goal and I think that bond was built so strong that now that we’re opponents, that mentality still stays the same.”

They joke about what they’d like to see happen on Friday night. Lulay laughs when he says he hopes Reilly is on target but is the victim of a ton of dropped passes. “Hope he plays great, hope he stays healthy, hope he’s extremely disappointed about a loss when the game’s over,”
countered Reilly.

With 400 yards in two straight outings, Travis Lulay is back among the CFL’s premiere pivots (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Friendship is friendship but the win is the thing for these two quarterbacks, cut from the same sturdy, can-do cloth. Both have battled serious injuries and re-emerged, Reilly returning from a knee injury in 2015 to lead the Eskimos to a Grey Cup win. Now Lulay has shown he is in vintage form, a couple of nasty shoulder injuries far behind him, his return to form a happy and welcome sight to see for Reilly.

“It was really cool to watch him play,” he said of Lulay’s relief appearance against Hamilton and of his come from behind victory against Winnipeg last week. “And even cooler to see him do really well.

“People always wanted to follow him and what he was doing on the football field,” said Reilly, thinking back once more to the days when he was at the bench watching Lulay pilot the Lions’ offence. “He would go out and show everybody through example what it is to do everything you can to win a football game. I loved watching that. He would get the hard yards. He would put everything on the line for his team.”

The same can be said of Reilly and he most certainly already had that quality within him when he arrived in BC back in 2010.

“That side comes out on the field. That’s the on-field persona of Mike,” said Lulay.

The mutual admiration society will be on display Friday night, and its two members will be hoping for very good things for one another. But score will be kept, and it will matter very much who comes out on top.

They wouldn’t have it another way and it’s big reason why Mike Reilly and Travis Lulay belong to the club in the first place.


Before playing on the same CFL team, Reilly and Lulay almost became college teammates (The Canadian Press)

When Mike Reilly was trying to decide which university to got to, he had some options.

He took a tour of a few colleges and one of them was Montana State. “There was a time period when I was considering ‘is this maybe
the place where I wanna go?’” said Reilly, noting that the play of the incumbent, one Travis Lulay, led him to take a pass.

“I knew of Travis,” said Reilly. “I’m pretty certain I actually met Travis on my trip, but I already knew a lot about him. He was a pretty
big-time name in the state of Montana.”

Lulay had had a very good freshman year at Montana State and had won the starter’s job outright.

“When there’s a guy that’s only a year older than you that’s basically had an all-star season and is gonna be the projected starter for the next three years, that’s not necessarily a situation you wanna walk into,” said Reilly with a laugh.

“You could say that he probably played a small part in my decision to not go to Montana State, for sure.”

Instead, Reilly ended up at Washington State and then Central Washington, where he started and starred during a journey that would eventually lead him back to his eventual best friend in Vancouver.