July 24, 2021

Reilly soldiers through camp w/ a heavy heart

(Photo: BCLions.com)

Rhonda Reilly is never far away in spirit. On Saturday, July 24th, what would have been her 60th birthday, she’ll be even closer in the heart and mind of her son, Michael as he honours her memory while playing the sport he loves at BC Lions training camp in Kamloops.  It’s a sport that brought his family together for many years.

Rhonda and Michael’s Dad Pat never missed a Lions home game or a trip to Calgary or Edmonton together, the proximity to their home in Montana allowing them to get to those cities in six and nine hours, respectively.

“Shorter if she were driving,” Pat, a schoolteacher, once boasted on Twitter as they were packing up the car to head to an Edmonton home game for Michael in 2018.

A lot has happened since late 2019 when we were last in normal day-to-day life.  Rhonda passed away suddenly on March 19th of this year.

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Michael Reilly, left, at work in Kamloops at training camp; his parents, Rhonda and Pat, at a Lions game in 2019 (Photo: BCLions.com)

“It’s not really something you ever get over, especially when it’s sudden and unexpected,” said Reilly in a ZOOM call with media in Kamloops this week.

The Lions star pivot honours his mother by going by his full first name, noting right at the time of her passing that she would always call him Michael and wished he never shortened it. As the practice days and intensity heats up in Kamloops, number 13 continues to use Rhonda’s memory as a big motivator to getting back into football mode.

“We’re a close family. People that know me and my career know who my parents are because my parents came to every single home game when I was playing in Edmonton, I don’t think they missed a home game in ’19. They’re obviously big fans of me and big supporters of our league.”

A big part of that family reunion at the games involved pre and post-game discussions outside the locker room. Over the years, the family has celebrated many great wins, lamented over a few bad ones, most likely shed a few tears after a couple of injuries and otherwise played the cards that get dealt in the unpredictable and sometimes cruel world of football.

From this writer’s personal interactions with Pat, he will for sure be there still if border restrictions allow. At first, it will no doubt feel a little bit empty not having Rhonda in her usual seat, cheering number 13 on. But the Reilly men will take solace in the fact she is watching from above.

“That first game is going to be extra emotional for sure because she’s either been in the stands in person watching or watching on TV or listening on the radio for every football game I’ve played in my entire life,” he said.

“There has never been a time where a game got over with and I called her and she wasn’t aware of what went on in the game. This will be the very first time ever where that will be the scenario where she won’t be on this planet watching me play football. I don’t think she was a fan of football as much as she was a fan of me and what I was doing and came to love football because of that. She got to know a lot of great people in Canada through my career and I think a lot of people in Canada were blessed to know my mom as well.”

Michael referenced Grey Cup Festivals and the Labour Day Classics as two events his parents loved to branch out, meet more passionate CFL fans and discover more special aspects of this great league.

At age 36, the Lions pivot is more motivated than ever to get his third Grey Cup ring and second as a starter. This team will have as good a chance as anybody in this truncated 14-game season that will feel like playoff time right from kickoff in a couple of weeks.

He will also look to his mother as motivation when it comes to raising his own young family the right way. His wife Emily and their daughters Brooklyn and Caydence have also become regular components of the family’s game day celebrations. As time has gone on and the wound closes bit by bit, he will be more appreciative of the good times Rhonda and Pat both have brought to his life.

“Unfortunately, we lost her too soon. But at the same time, I was definitely very blessed. She was an amazing person and an amazing mom. As much as it sucks when they’re gone, you just remind yourself it only hurts that bad because of how great things were when they were around. It’s definitely something that’s on my mind all the time, but the world keeps spinning, you’ve got to keep on moving. That’s just what we’re trying to do.”

When Michael straps on a helmet and game jersey on August 6th in Saskatchewan, the first game action for him and his Lions since November 2nd, 2019, Rhonda will definitely be watching from above and cheering her son on in football, and life.

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