Mike Reilly: Why I chose the BC Lions

Mike Reilly’s story as told to Senior Writer Chris O’Leary

Photo: The Canadian Press

“I’d been thinking about what it’d be like to walk back into that building, to go back to where it all started . . . other than a few new coats of paint, it was all exactly as I remembered it.”

Mike Reilly

The first time I sat down with Ed Hervey I was impressed.

It was January, 2013 and Ed had just traded for me. My contract with the BC Lions was expiring and I knew I wouldn’t be back there. Travis Lulay led us to a Grey Cup in 2011 and won MOP that year. He threw for 4,200 yards in 2012. I was backing up one of my closest friends, but I was ready to be a starter and I knew that I’d need a chance somewhere else in the CFL to do that.

That’s where Ed came in.

He’d only been a GM for a month or so in Edmonton and his first major move was to trade for an unproven backup that had two starts to his name. Probably less than 100 pass attempts. And I was set to be a free-agent in two weeks.

But he saw something that he felt was going to make his franchise better so he didn’t really care what anyone else said or thought about it. He was going to make the move and do what he felt was best for his team.

Take the Esks and the Lions out of it and there were six other GMs at the time. No one else made that move. Certainly I know other teams were interested, like Winnipeg and Hamilton. Those are just the ones I know of. But for him to make that move, it was aggressive. I learned very quickly that Ed was going to do his research to figure out what had to be done to make his team better and he’d do whatever it took in terms of being aggressive and acting on his instincts. Over the last six years, I’ve watched those instincts pay off.

So it kind of felt like deja vu, six years later, to be on the cusp of free agency again and having another conversation with Ed. A lot had changed — I was the Edmonton guy now and he was the BC guy, to start with — but a lot of it felt very familiar.

There were similar parts of the conversation that reminded me of 2013 but it was also different because he had different plans, bigger plans. The plan has always been to build a Grey Cup championship team and not to do it the wrong way, where you win one championship and you’re in the basement for four years after because you can’t sustain it. Ed’s all about sustainability.

He also has an awareness for the off-the-field issues and the need to build up the marketplace and the fan base in Vancouver. I know I gave up a lot leaving Edmonton, in terms of legacy there. But in going back to the Lions, there’s a new challenge on and off the field, in winning championships but also trying to reinvigorate the west coast when it comes to CFL football. This is a glimpse into how all of that came together.

Reilly poses with Lions general manager Ed Hervey as he is introduced as the team's new quarterback (Photo: The Canadian Press)

. . .

It was around 6 p.m. in Seattle the night before free agency began when my phone started to blow up.

I’d never dealt with anything like this before. When I signed with Edmonton in 2013, my arrival was the news for the day and that was about it. It wasn’t crazy for me.

So, Ryan Rishaug had tweeted something saying that I was set to sign a contract with BC and all that and it sounded like a done deal. I hadn’t seen the tweet. I was just wondering why my phone wouldn’t stop going off.

Every 10, 15 seconds I was getting texts, whether it was teammates in Edmonton or close friends and things like that or just people around the league, past teammates and coaches, that sort of stuff. To that point, I knew people were speculating that I was going to end up in BC but by the third message in a short period of time, I realized something different was going on here.

That’s when I opened my Twitter app. I had 50-plus notifications or something. Then I finally saw the original tweet by Rishaug and realized what had happened. At that point, I’d fallen so far behind on trying to respond to anybody and nothing was official, so I just put my phone in the other room and decided to deal with all of that when the time came.

It was a good idea and a bad idea, mostly because I’m the type of guy that hates having those little red notification numbers on my phone. And Tuesday was hectic, so the notifications were piling up. We had a full day, going to the practice facility in Surrey, signing the contract with Ed and doing the press conference at the hotel. My wife Emily and my daughters Brooklyn and Cadence were with me. I didn’t really look at my phone until that night. By then there were over 60 unread texts, 30-plus emails and I didn’t even dare look at Twitter to see how far behind I was on that. We got back into Seattle Thursday night and I think I caught up to the last message I’d received on Saturday morning.

It was a crazy couple of days — a great couple of days — and on top of that just the emotion of the day was incredible.

There’s a video from that Tuesday morning of Ed and I walking into the Lions’ front offices. I’d known for a couple of weeks what my decision was going to be and I’d been thinking about what it’d be like to walk back into that building, to go back to where it all started for me in the CFL. You wonder how much of it will still be the same and other than a few new coats of paint, it was all exactly as I remembered it.

It was interesting because it didn’t feel like I was coming to a new organization. If I would have ended up anywhere other than Edmonton or BC there would have been a weird feeling. It would have felt like I was the new guy in the building.

I went down to the locker room and it was kind of a blast from the past. I started to get to work right away and I actually got a couple workouts in at the gym. A lot of the guys were there doing off-season lifts. TJ Lee and Bryan Burnham, I spent a ton of time talking with those guys. Sukh Chung came in on Wednesday and I spent a lot of time talking with him. It was better than I could have hoped for in the sense of it felt like I wasn’t a new member of that team. I just felt like I was walking into a place that I work and talking to teammates that I’ve been playing with forever. There wasn’t that awkward time to acclimatize to everything, it all felt very comfortable.

Mike Reilly leaves the field after the first quarter of a game on Oct. 26, 2012 in Calgary (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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. . .

You didn’t think I’d get through this without talking about Edmonton, did you?

A lot has happened in the last six years for me, on and off of the field and Edmonton has been a constant in that. Like I said earlier, I came to Edmonton as an unproven quarterback, a single guy joining a team that was going through a major transition.

We won four games in 2013. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in terms of football. But it also galvanized my relationship with Ed and the guys that were on that team that year. We turned it around and started winning in 2014. We won the Grey Cup in 2015. Emily went from my girlfriend to my fiance to my wife. Both of our girls were born in Edmonton. My parents came up for every game. Emily, Brooklyn and Cadence came up for every home game and last season they lived in Edmonton for three or four months.

At the same time, I watched Edmonton grow. My first three years there I lived about a two-minute drive from the stadium. That was great for me, but when Emily and I got married, she decided that if she was going to be spending a lot of time in Edmonton she wanted to experience a different part of the city. So we moved around downtown a little bit.

We lived in the downtown core for a couple years in a highrise condo, close to where the new arena was being built. Last year we moved a little west, to a townhouse in the Oliver Square area. It was really cool, honestly, to watch the downtown change over those years.

When I first got to Edmonton the downtown was dead. There was no Ice District. If you drove downtown after about three o’clock on a weekday there was nobody there, no one walking around, no one doing anything. Once they started building the arena and the Ice District and all of that it was really cool to see the downtown kind of rejuvenated. We enjoyed living down there and it was really cool to see that transition.

Mike Reilly hoists the Grey Cup in 2015 (Photo: The Canadian Press)

We also loved getting to know the people in Edmonton. We met so many wonderful people. Huge fans of the Eskimos. Anytime we’d go out grocery shopping or anything like that…we went to Costco a lot and Emily got very good at being a photographer. We’d get stopped half a dozen times or more whenever we went out. People would want to say hello and talk a little football. It was cool to be a part of that and feel like you were a part of the city.

And like anywhere, we came to enjoy the little things that we found over time. For us, the best one was the Route 99 Diner.

Route 99 is your classic greasy spoon diner, just a tiny little spot on 99th street and 88 ave. It became a staple for us. It’ll always hold some special memories because pretty much every time that my folks were in for game day, the next morning they would get up to get on the road and we’d all go for breakfast there.

“I’m not going to try to kid myself and be hardcore about it and say it’s another game. It’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be weird to be in the other locker room coming out onto the other sideline and playing against Edmonton.”

Reilly on his inevitable return to Commonwealth Stadium

After games, I never had the energy or the desire to go out. We never went out and drank or partied. Maybe I’d share a beer with my dad after the game, but my body always felt so sore from the game that Route 99 kind of felt like hangover food for me. It was great to go in there, get a nice greasy steak and eggs breakfast, drink a ton of coffee to try to wake up and it made the body feel a little better every time I’d do that. Then I’d go into the facility to watch three or four hours of film. That was pretty much my weekly schedule.

We probably went there a dozen times per season, at least and it was always the day after the game. It was great. There were always patrons in there that were Eskimo fans. The gals that worked there as servers got to know the kids by name. The service was always great and the food was always very good.

. . .

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about how the news of my leaving would hit Edmonton. I was nervous about it but I wasn’t worried, because I was strong in my conviction.

I knew that I was making my decision for the right reasons, for reasons that I felt were best for me and at the same time best for my family.

If I was waffling, if I wasn’t sure if I made the right choice and all of that, then I probably wouldn’t have left Edmonton. It was a great scenario for me. It was one that I loved and one that I was comfortable in, but sometimes you have to be able to step out of your comfort zone and do things because you know they’re right for you.

Six years later, talking with Ed again about my future and hearing his plans, I knew it was my turn to make the move and do what was best for me and my team.

It was really cool to talk with him this time because he doesn’t just say all the fluff. Everyone wants to win Grey Cups but Ed has a plan of how to do it and he walked me through every step of his plan.

Reilly sits on the bench during a contest at Commonwealth Stadium in 2018 (Photo: Walter Tychnowicz/

It’s obviously something that he’s spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, years, really mapping out how to go about doing it. I do feel like he plays chess in that he’s looking a couple of steps ahead. I have nothing but faith in him. Us as players still have to take care of business on the field but when it comes to Ed, I never doubt the moves that are being made and I never doubt that he is going to give us the best opportunity that he can to win.

I know that one of the toughest wins to get this year will come in Week 2, when the Lions are in Edmonton. I’m going to get my first dose of Commonwealth Stadium as a visitor in six years very quickly.

I’m not going to try to kid myself and be hardcore about it and say it’s another game. It’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be weird to be in the other locker room coming out onto the other sideline and playing against Edmonton.

I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to seeing those fans again, albeit they’re not going to be cheering for me, they’ll be cheering against me. I’m sure there’s going to be a disappointed group that’s going to boo me and that’s fine. That’s part of the game. That’s what I love.

I think that a majority of the fan base understands why I left, respects that and also knows that every time I put on my jersey and helmet to play for the city of Edmonton and wear the Green and Gold, I tried to do it the right way. I tried to do it in a way that would make them proud of their team.

That’s something I’m very excited to do now for the fans in BC. That’s part of the legacy that I want to build, is not just winning championships but bringing the BC Lions into a top flight franchise and market for the CFL.

And if it’s possible I’d love to get to Route 99 while I’m back in Edmonton this year, for old times’ sake.