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Football Back in Vancouver, Mike Reilly embracing life as one of the faces of the CFL

B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly speaks to the media at the team's training facility in Surrey, B.C., on May 14, 2019.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

A lot has changed in Mike Reilly’s life since the last time he played for the B.C. Lions.

As a third-string quarterback he lived with a teammate in 2012, staying up late after practice playing video games. Now he returns to the club with a new set of responsibilities.

“I’ve got a few more grey hairs, a couple of kids,” the 34-year-old said with a laugh.

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Along with becoming a husband and a dad of two young girls, Reilly’s evolved into one of the CFL’s most recognizable faces and most sought-after players.

Clubs across the country clamoured to sign him when free agency opened in February. But after six seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos, Reilly ultimately decided to sign a four-year, $2.9-million deal contract with B.C., saying the choice made sense for his family and that he believes in the direction the Lions are headed.

Today Reilly’s bearded silhouette is plastered in orange and black throughout downtown Vancouver, part of a marketing campaign that the organization hopes will reinvigorate a flagging fan base.

Lions general manager Ed Hervey wanted the star athlete for what he can do both on and off the field.

“This wasn’t just a football decision,” said Hervey, adding that players and fans alike gravitate toward Reilly’s open, charismatic personality. “It’s contagious. And when you feel like you have a chance to win, your confidence goes up. And players like Mike give the team that kind of confidence.”

Hervey has long had confidence in Reilly. He was working as a scout for the Eskimos when he first started thinking about bringing in the young quarterback. Reilly had played just a handful of games in the CFL, but compiled an impressive college résumé at Washington State University, where he set a still-standing all-division NCAA record, throwing at least one touchdown pass in all 46 career games.

When Hervey became the Eskimos GM in 2013, he orchestrated a trade with the Lions for draft picks.

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“It was a matter of just looking at the situation and trying to stockpile our depth and just realizing it was a golden opportunity in Edmonton for someone to take the bull by the horns and become our starting quarterback,” he said.

“Getting that deal done obviously changed the direction of the Edmonton Eskimos organization at that time and everyone’s career benefited from that.”

Reilly’s time with the Esks got off to a dismal start, with the team finishing 4-14 in his first season.

Two years later, however, Reilly returned from a torn knee ligament to lead the club to a Grey Cup championship. He was dubbed the game’s most valuable player.

In the years since, Reilly has consistently led the league in passing, throwing for more than 5,000 yards three seasons in a row. Last year he tossed for 5,562 yards, completing 67.3 per cent of 621 pass attempts and tallying 30 touchdowns.

Hervey isn’t surprised at how his star player has developed. After all, he said, Reilly is one of the hardest-working quarterbacks the general manager has ever worked with.

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“But he also understands the responsibility of being the face of a franchise,” Hervey said. “There’s guys that say they want it and there’s guys that are basically destined to have it. And Mike is one of those guys who’s destined.”

Becoming the face not only of a franchise but the CFL has happened gradually, Reilly said, providing time to grow into the role.

“It was kind of all a progression. It didn’t get all thrown at me at once,” he said. “So I’m at that point where it just seems like life to me. It’s not overwhelming, it’s not too much because my entire career has led to this point.”

Still, there have been many lessons through the highs and the lows of his football career.

“I just feel that everybody I’ve played for and with has taught me something along the way,” he said.

As a kid, the Kennewick, Wash., native was coached by his dad, who instilled a vigorous work ethic. Then there were the high school and college coaches who taught him how to break down film and the importance of footwork.

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Before coming to the CFL in 2010, Reilly earned a mechanical-engineering degree from Washington State University, then bounced around the NFL, spending time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, picking up bits of wisdom in each locale.

He remembers trying to be the first guy at the Packers training facility every morning but always coming in to find all-star quarter back Aaron Rodgers sitting in a dark meeting room watching film.

“That’s what it takes to be a championship player. I believe that. So if you want to win championships, you better be ready to put in the work and make those sacrifices,” Reilly said.

After signing with the Lions this February, B.C.’s new quarterback sacrificed much of what was left of his off-season prepping for his 10th CFL season. He routinely made the two-hour drive from his family’s home in Seattle to the Lions practice facility in suburban Vancouver, tossing balls with receivers Bryan Burnham and Shaq Johnson and discussing offensive strategies with the coaching staff.

The work put in over March and April helped build a great chemistry between Reilly and the receivers, Burnham said.

“I look at him not just as a teammate but he’s a friend of mine now,” he said, adding that Reilly’s impact could be felt as soon as the squad got to training camp in Kamloops last month.

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“You add Mike Reilly to any team in the league and it’s going to make them better immediately. The way he commands the huddle, his input not just on the field but off the field with the playbook, it’s pretty impressive to see it. You’ve heard about it over the years but to see it first hand, I was pretty impressed.”

With the Lions season opener around the corner, Reilly’s looking not only to the year ahead but to the club’s future. He’s signed a four-year contract but told Hervey that he expects to play for B.C. until he’s 40 at least.

There’s a lot of work to be done in that time, he said, both on the field and in the community.

“I want us to build something that 10, 15 years from now, I look back and can say, ‘Man, they’re still having a tremendous amount of success’ and take pride in being part of the foundation of that,” Reilly said.

The work has already started, he added, both in the locker room and in the community.

“I think there’s a renewed energy that I’ve felt from people. And it’s exciting to be a part of that. … This is a changing of the guard and now this is a different B.C. Lions.”

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