At the BC Lions’ 2010 training camp in Kamloops, BC, an undersized, unknown linebacker was trying to catch the attention of the coaching staff.
Solomon Elimimian had worked out twice for the Lions at free agent camps in Los Angeles and Las Vegas but didn’t think he had impressed Wally Buono, BC’s head coach and general manager. He had badgered Lion management until they gave him what he called “a pity contract” to attend training camp.
During a drill early in camp, Elimimian took on Jerome Messam, the Lions’ six-foot-three, 230-pound running back.
“I literally picked him up and sent him backwards,” Elimimian said, chuckling at the memory.
“During film session later that day, Wally puts that film on top of the screen. He says ‘I don’t know who this player is, but this is the kind of physicality that we need on our team.’ That moment kind of put me on the radar.”
Elimimian was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2010. He would go on to play 10 years and 133 regular season games for the Lions and Saskatchewan Roughriders. In 2014 he became the first player to be named both the Most Outstanding Defensive Player and Most Outstanding Player.
Elimimian’s relentless drive and passion have been rewarded by him being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2023. He and former Montreal Alouettes’ defensive lineman John Bowman are first-ballot entrants.
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It was Buono who called to inform Elimimian about his induction, but he didn’t feel the full impact of the honour until he told his mother, father and siblings.
“Just the outcry from them in terms of how proud they were of me, that’s when it finally started to sink in,” an emotional Elimimian said during a teleconference call. “My dad said he was proud of me as a son. That was probably the most special thing of all.
“Just being the son of immigrants, knowing how hard my folks worked to provide us a better life. When your dad says he’s proud of you as a son, it kind of brings everything into total focus.”
Elimimian will be remembered as one of the best linebackers in CFL history. He recorded 32 sacks and his career total of 833 tackles is sixth on the all-time list.
Elimimian earned his second Most Outstanding Defensive Player award in 2016. He set a CFL single-season record of 143 defensive tackles in 2014, then increased it to 144 in 2017. He still holds three of the best four tackle seasons in league history.
The 36-year-old, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Los Angeles, was a CFL All-Star four times and a West Division All-Star six times.
At six-foot-three and 230 pounds, Elimimian was told he was too small and too slow to play professional football.
In high school, Elimimian was named the best defensive player in Los Angeles but had only one scholarship offer. He set records at the University of Hawaii and still holds the school record of 434 tackles in 51 games, but wasn’t drafted by the NFL.
What he lacked in size he compensated for in heart and desire.
“You can measure my size, my height, my speed, but you can’t measure my will,” said Elimimian. “I’ve always said my will, my determination is the one thing that sets me apart from other players.
“You tell me I can’t do something and I’m going to prove you wrong.”
After his college career, Elimimian was signed, then released by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. He spent the rest of 2009 living at home with his mother and working out daily.
He came to the Lions in 2010 knowing it was his last chance at a football career.
“It’s one of those moments where there’s nothing else for you,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything else.
“The moment that changed my life was when I got on that stage and I won rookie of the year. The weight I had on my shoulders was lifted.”
In 2019, then-Lions GM Ed Hervey made the decision to release Elimimian after playing nine seasons in BC. That resulted in Elimimian signing with Saskatchewan.
“I was released by a general manger who said I was washed,” said Elimimian. “It’s not about him, it’s about me. It’s about my endurance, my passion just to prove myself right.”
Despite missing the first three games of 2019 with an injury, Elimimian finished third in the league with 88 defensive tackles and was named a West Division All-Star.
Elimimian, who retired after the 2019 season, continues to live in Vancouver where he works for EMD Financial, helping companies raise money.
“Canada has changed my life, I still call it home to this day,” he said. “I look at those moments and how important they were.”
Elimimian remains involved in football as the president of the Canadian Football League Players’ Association.
“The CFL has been good to me and my family, helped me in life in tremendous ways,” he said. “The CFL provided me an avenue to showcase my talent. For me, this role is to give back to the membership. It’s fighting for the recognition and the rights of our membership.”
Elimimian admits he had a complicated relationship with Buono, the Hall of Famer who has more wins in the CFL than any other coach.
Heading into the 2014 season, Buono had even considered trading Elimimian.
“The first three or four years we probably didn’t like each other,” said Elimimian. “It was a strange relationship. And then I won Most Outstanding Player and it (became) a father-son relationship.
“I really looked up to him.”
Elimimian’s lone Grey Cup victory came in 2011 on a Lions team that started the season 0-5.
“The bond that was had that year was like I’ve never experience before,” he said. “The guys that were on that group are so special.
“It was my second year in the CFL so I thought we can win one every year. I never got back.”