By Perry Lefko
If the Canadian Football League needed a bit of a feel-good story after the various injuries that have sidelined quarterbacks this season, B.C. Lions’ Travis Lulay – a pivot who has known the heartache and frustration of injuries – provided it.
Lulay’s return to action last week, 10 months after he injured his right knee in a game against Montreal and underwent season-ending surgery, had everything you could imagine. Most notably; a fitting ending for a player who has given so much of himself to the game on and off the field.
The 34-year-old led B.C. to a 20-17 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Having received the opportunity to return as BC’s starting quarterback last season, only to cruelly lose it due to injury – the football gods looked to offer some due-justice on the field at BC Place.
“That was a special moment for me, just on a personal level given that there was so much uncertainty in my own eyes about where my career was going to go after last season’s injury,” he told me on Tuesday. “To be frank, I really contemplated being done at the end of last season. I didn’t know for sure if I had it in me, if my body had it, to try to battle back because I knew how hard I would have to work to have another opportunity to play.”
To understand that, go back to that game last September against Montreal. Lions’ GM (and now again Head Coach) Wally Buono decided to anoint Lulay as the starter, even after Jonathan Jennings had fully recovered from a shoulder injury, following a bye week.
Lulay lost his starting job to Jonathan Jennings in 2016 and that continued into 2017. When Jennings suffered an injury in the fourth game of the season, Lulay replaced him and set a CFL record throwing for 436 passing yards and three touchdowns and adding another major on the ground. He continued to play with poise and confidence, giving the Lions a 3-1 record as their starter and turning back the clock to earlier in his career. Overall, he completed 121 of 165 passes for 1,693 yards in five games, throwing 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was the top passer and owned the top completion percentage in that span.
“When I got back on the field I was playing with a renewed confidence,” he said. “Some of the pressure had lifted. I got a different mindset of playing the game and having an opportunity to play and really enjoying it.”
Then came the Montreal game. On the Lions’ first series, Lulay’s right leg buckled and immediately, he knew it was serious.
“I had hardly settled into that new-old role of being a starter and that opportunity was gone in the blink of an eye,” he said. Anyone who had watched his career, one in which he had led the Lions to a Grey Cup win in 2011 and won the game’s Most Valuable Player honour to add to his Most Outstanding Player award that season, had to feel terribly sorry for him. He did not hold back his emotions sitting on the trainer’s table, the frustration coming out of him as tears.
“I’m an open book,” he said. “It was heartbreaking in the moment because I had kind of been down that road before and done the whole battle-back thing. I had been excited and appreciative of the opportunity and it was taken away. On top of that was the idea ‘if I do come back’, how much extra work that would entail, whether I still love the game enough to be around it. It would have been disappointing if that was my last snap. If it was though, I would have been okay with that.”
“I’m at that stage of my life where I can live with the result of that. What you saw in that moment of disappointment was just me being open and vulnerable and that’s just life.”
Several months later after the Lions hired Ed Hervey as the team’s new GM, Lulay met him. Hervey expressed an interest in Lulay coming back in a backup role and to mentor Jennings. Lulay, in turn, decided he wanted to give his career another go. At the time he signed, he wasn’t sure he would be physically ready for training camp.
“The fact I was able to play a little bit last year and I felt as comfortable as I ever had, I wanted to see that through. I knew that outside of that injury; my body, my eyes and my spirit felt good about playing,” he said. “So if I could get my knee to come around I wanted to give it another go. I didn’t have huge expectations of exactly would that would look like, when I would be healthy, what part of the season I would be ready.”
Buono decided to turn back the clock again to Lulay in the game against Winnipeg following a loss the week before against the Blue Bombers. Winnipeg led 17-0 at the half in the second game, which had two defining plays for the Lions. Lulay served up an early interception when the ball came out of his hand the wrong way. On the last play of the first half, receiver Brian Burnham had a sure touchdown catch in the end zone stripped away on a great play by defensive back Kevin Fogg, who also had the interception.
But the Lions flipped the switch in the second half, making some key goalline stands to produce turnovers on downs. Meanwhile, the offence also came back to life. Lulay directed his team on a drive that culminated in a 16-yard Ty Long field goal that won the game on the final play. Lulay finished with 28 completions in 41 attempts for 326 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. But was important… the team won.
“At the end of that game and the way it all happened in such an emotional, dramatic walk-off, field-goal fashion, I had a bit of a surreal moment,” Lulay said. “A couple months ago I wasn’t sure if or when or how this would look and here we are back on the field, helping my team win a game. It was pretty cool. Those two plays in the first half, that was really the difference from us feeling decent about ourselves at halftime and feeling like we really had an uphill battle in the second half. It could have easily been 17-14. I’ve just been around enough CFL games to know that 17 points is not an insurmountable amount to overcome.”
Lulay is back in that “new, old role” again as the starter, kind of like Groundhog Day.
“It feels similar to how it felt like last year before I got hurt,” he said. “Maybe I put a little less pressure on myself to find that end result. I think I’m really better at this stage of my career being focused on the things I can control. Football is a team game and there’s a lot of circumstances that happen. When you let go of some of that stuff and just focus on playing quarterback and playing as good as you can…it just helps bring me up a little bit in terms of being able to play a little bit freer, which helps in maintaining some of my confidence. I think that mindset helps. I think that helped me a little bit last week.
“We’re down 17-0 at home and everybody is talking about making a quarterback change. That’s not how you envision it. I don’t know if it’s just a more mature, experienced mindset that maybe I once played with, but that’s just kind of where I’m at and that maybe gives me the confidence to bridge the gap between not having played for such a long time and being thrown back in the fire. Having that little confidence and decisiveness can help me overcome the little bit of rust that is still there.”
I wondered if he felt lucky, fortunate, blessed over what has happened, or whether it’s just a combination of life and sports.
“I didn’t have the huge expectations,” he said. “I didn’t say ‘I’m going to come back and my goal is I’m going to take over the job or I want to start 10 games.’ There was none of that. I just wanted to be healthy again. I had a really enjoyable 2016 season even though I didn’t have the opportunity to see the field. I think part of that is because I have been down this injury road before that I have a level of appreciation for the process and being around the game and enjoying going to work and being around the guys and being a captain and one of the voices in the locker room. I enjoy all of that. The game is just an added bonus.
“It’s exciting and I’m appreciative of the opportunity being on the field. To me, it’s just life and it’s funny how it all played out. Jonathan Jennings is one of my best friends. It’s hard for me to see him not get the results that I think he deserves based on the amount of work that he’s put in and how much I know he cares and takes pride in getting better and being a professional starting quarterback. I know he doesn’t take that for granted. Whatever stage of his career that he’s in, where he’s battling a little bit of those things that we all go through, that’s equally hard for me as it is exciting for me to play again.
“It’s not like I’m sitting on the sidelines rubbing my hands together saying, ‘This is it. This is my opportunity.’ This is just life. I was just in position to step in and play when I was asked to. I feel fortunate that my injury came around in time to be there when my team needed me. I wanted to help put our team in position to win.
“I didn’t necessarily see it ending in dramatic fashion, nor was that the plan, but that’s the way it played out and makes it a little bit more of a cool story, I suppose.”