Just a few weeks ago, in the midst of an eight-game win streak, the B.C. Lions were not only the CFL's hottest team, they were also the healthiest.
That was a scary proposition for the rest of the league, because a healthy team this late in a season is a rare occurrence in a sport defined by its capacity for injury. But, as they say in football: injuries are not a matter of if, but a matter of when. And they have certainly taken a bite out of the Leos in October.
The team enters Saturday's West Division showdown with the Edmonton Eskimos with 14 players who are either out or plan to play through pain with home-field advantage in the playoffs on the line. The Eskimos clinch first place, and a home date in the West final, with a win, while B.C. needs to win its next two games to steal top spot from the Green and Gold.
Among the wounded Lions are four running backs, three defensive linemen and quarterback Travis Lulay – one of many players with an injured ankle.
"They always find a way to catch up to you at some point, and for some reason, this is our time," Lulay said of the raft of injuries. "Sometimes, they come in bunches … but I still feel confidant with who is playing."
The Lions actually looked like they were going to beat the injury bug in 2011, because they had several players – running back Andrew Harris, receiver Kierrie Johnson, defensive linemen Khreem Smith and Khalif Mitchell – who won starting positions in-season, thus weren't subject to the entire 18-game grind in an every-down capacity. That situation makes it easier to nurse players through the year and into the playoffs in good health, and the Lions were well on their way until a few weeks ago, when injuries began multiplying like gremlins.
It hit a crescendo in Hamilton last weekend, when Lulay and five others went down in a game against the Tiger-Cats and sent the Lions into a scramble. They were forced to sign two Canadian veterans – receiver Ryan Thelwell and linebacker Neil McKinlay – who were out of football.
In Thelwell's case, the former Lions and Calgary Stampeders veteran was working in the oil and gas industry and wasn't exactly planning a comeback when general manager and head coach Wally Buono called. The 38-year-old will serve as an emergency pass-catcher Saturday, and the way things are going, B.C. will probably need him.
For now, the list of players who plan to gut it out Saturday is longer than the injured reserve, but both are in flux with one practice day remaining and more than 48 hours left before kickoff.
Harris, who has become a major offensive weapon, admitted he feels some pressure to play because of the number of injuries at his position. He is experiencing upper-body stiffness due to a bruised shoulder, does not have full range of motion, and will likely serve as the backup tailback to starter Jamal Robertson.
"We're short at running back," Harris said when asked why he plans to play. "It's more for depth and to keep Wally comfortable more than anything."
B.C. Lions injuries
Good to go
Quarterback Travis Lulay (ankle)
Fullback Rolly Lumbala (shoulder)
Slotback Shawn Gore (concussion)
Nose tackle Khalif Mitchell (leg)
Defensive end Brent Johnson (concussion)
Middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian (ankle)
Defensive back Tad Kornegay (groin)
Running back Andrew Harris (shoulder)
Linebacker Anthony Reddick (shoulder)
Defensive tackle Aaron Hunt (heel)
Safety Jason Arakgi (ankle)
Running back Tim Brown (ribs)
Running back Jamall Lee (ankle)
Wide receiver Akeem Foster (knee)