After Travis Lulay’s record-setting performance in Hamilton Saturday, we re-visit this heartwarming story about Lulay the person, which was written prior to the start of 2016. Fittingly, “That Night In Hamilton” refers to a game in 2012 where the quarterback’s injury trouble first started. The domino effect of that night would impact the club for the next five seasons.
Written by Jamie Cartmell
Travis Lulay is still angry.
He’s ticked-off, fired-up, hot under the collar, miffed and more than a bit peeved.
It dates back a couple months, but the veteran Lions pivot gets heated up all over again when the topic is broached once more before he heads outside for some high-velocity pitch and catch with teammates Shawn Gore and Rolly Lumbala.
“How Damian Lillard wasn’t an NBA All-Star this year is absolutely beyond me,” rants Lulay. “His numbers are better than his two previous all-star seasons and he just led a supposedly last-last place team to the playoffs.”
Yep, the Oregon native is fully immersed in his beloved Trail Blazers right now as they toil with the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. His passion dates back to when he was five or six when the Blazers were the best of the west but Clyde ‘The Glide’ couldn’t get them past the Pistons or Bulls for a title.
“My dad had a four-game package one year and I think we sat in the last row of the upper deck,” he recalls “That was a trip to the big city for us country kids. Great memories.”
While the ripcity loyalist finds time to catch his boys at night, a big chunk of his day is spent preparing for the season ahead. No small feat given the fact that he and his wife Kim welcomed daughter number three in February.
“Kim is a rock-star mom, she is a natural,” smiles Lulay. “She works very hard to give our kids everything they need, we’re lucky to have her in our lives.”
If you haven’t already guessed, Travis and Kim are throwbacks to another generation when parents lived
within their means and understood the difference between needs and wants. They met for keeps in high school, Kim a four-letter athlete (track, basketball, volleyball and softball) and Travis, one grade-back, looking to do what Lulays have done for generations in Oregon in baseball or football or whatever else they decide to play: compete, contribute, lead and win.
The fact they have two cars in the driveway at their home just south of Blaine might be their biggest indulgence as they pour their hearts into their growing family. The offseason trips they once took together before they started a family are now on hold as their priorities focus exclusively on the three youngsters.
“Well, we did get to Hawaii last year for Mike Reilly’s wedding but yeah, traveling now is packing up the mini-van and maintaining a good nap schedule,” he admits. “Having our families close by in Oregon is great too.”
Meeting Travis the husband and Travis the dad just once would tell you all you need to know about the Montana State grad and he would easily top your list among the classiest people you know. It started young and it started with his own parents.
“My mom and dad are hardworking, grounded people. They cared more about us as people than they ever did about us athletes. They came from working-class families and it’s a big part of who I am.”
Pro sports isn’t fair and never has been, just ask Bobby Orr or Bo Jackson, but you have to ask yourself what the heck Travis Lulay ever did to deserve this four-year saga of serious injuries.
Stepping into the Way-Back Machine, Lions fans will recall that after signing with the club in 2009 and watching the likes of Buck Pierce, Jarious Jackson and Casey Printers lead the club with varying degrees of success over a season and a half, the former Seahawk hopeful took the Lions to double overtime in frosty Saskatchewan in 2010.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, the Lions had their quarterback and would soon see why putting their football fate in the hands of the kid with the 3.91 GPA and who literally had Montana State fans in tears of joy when he ended a 16-year drought against hated Montana in 2002, was a very good decision indeed.
“The 2010 season was a very good learning year. I lost my first three starts, but I got over the hump and proved to myself and my teammates that I had the mental toughness to overcome that kind of adversity.
The pressure to win at the professional level is unlike anything else. To be honest, choosing to work in professional sports where your ability to earn a living is heavily dependent on the success or failure of a group of young men playing a game, is not for the faint of heart.
Now put yourself in the shoes of the quarterback and the fact that your organization would be hosting the league championship as the Lions were set to do in 2011. It’s a situation that creates the type of pressure which few relish and even fewer manage to succeed in these days.
“You do all you can to try and treat each season and each game as singular entities, but in the end you’re just trying to fool yourself into not looking ahead. To say there’s no added pressure on everyone in an organization heading into a season when you’re hosting a Grey Cup could be the single biggest lie told by one team every year.”
The story of 2011 has been told a million times. Lions get off to a shaky start while still waiting for their stadium renos to be completed and continue to struggle in their temporary digs located on their old stomping grounds of Empire Stadium. Fittingly, the field ran parallel to the PNE’s wooden roller-coaster which gave riders fractionally fewer dips than fans witnessed at home during that stretch in 2010 and part of 2011.
The legends of Empire were awakened from their football slumber, but they weren’t happy about it and time pushed back against the modern day version of the Black and Orange despite a 2010 season that included a salute to the past and revisiting their 70’s silks.
“I don’t know what it was about that stadium, we just could not find wins there. It was a beautiful setting and you really felt like you were stepping back in time, but I think we were all happy to get back to BC Place.”
The move back to the big house wasn’t until the end of September 2011 and in between, Lulay and company stumbled to an 0-5 start before a veteran core and a future Hall of Fame head coach found another gear and added some veteran castoffs in Arland Bruce and Tad Kornegay. The turnaround was dramatic and the eventual run to a title was nothing short of historic.
With the win came awards and rewards of course. A league MOP for Lulay not to mention the Grey Cup MVP nod after a 34-23 win over Winnipeg. It also provided Lulay with a significant contract extension, the kind you host in a hotel ballroom and they carry live on TV.
The problem with happy endings, like 2011 provided fans, is that they don’t make for good sequels.
The Lions roared out of the gate in 2012 under new head coach Mike Benevides after Buono stepped aside following the big win in November. Lulay and teammates were rolling with a 10-4 mark heading into Hamilton in October; a time of the year when teams are trying to balance the need to build momentum for the post season with keeping their stars fresh.
“One of my best games as a pro ironically,” he remembers. “My grandmother had passed away earlier in the week, I was sick with the flu and Kim was days away from having our first daughter.”
The Lions pounded the ‘Cats 37-17, but a defensive lineman had a passing grab at Lulay’s throwing arm in the third quarter and wrenched it awkwardly in the kind of play that happens a dozen times a season across the league.
He finished the game but this hit was different though. This one hurt and it cost him a pair of starts, but with first-place wrapped up and a decent but brief outing in the regular season finale, Lulay could now spend two weeks prepping for the Western Final.
That night in Hamilton, the Lions pushed their record to 11-4. They haven’t reached that record since.
“Everyone is playing through pain at that point in the season but starting in the last game gave me the confidence I could go in the playoff game.”
Confidence is great, but sometimes it needs a boost from its friends pain medication and adrenaline.
Now enter Calgary’s Kevin Glenn who became the Stamps’ starter when Drew Tate was injured in the West Semi-Final.
CFL fans have long-known Good Hank and Bad Hank as Henry Burris’ multiple quarterback personality, but if ever a player should have a question mark instead of a number it might just be Kevin Glenn. As good a quarterback that has ever set foot on a field in the CFL, the 2012 Western Final was a prime example as his life as the Riddler. On the game’s second play from scrimmage, he caught Lions defensive back Antony Reddick in an unplanned, unschemed and rather mysterious self-called blitz and found Marquay McDaniel wide open for a crowd-silencing TD and then followed it up with a pick-six to Korey Banks in the same quarter.
Glenn bounced back from the Banks major and played the game of his life, throwing for 303 yards, leading the Stamps to a 34-29 win and a spot in the 100th Grey Cup. Lulay was good too with 274 passing yards and a TD on 33 completions but it wasn’t meant to be that day.
“We we’re 13-5 that year, 9-1 at home,” he recalls. “We missed out on a great opportunity that day, no excuses.”
Coming into 2013, Lulay looked more than ready to do his part to make amends for the playoff exit. Something was missing though as they got to camp. Geroy Simon had been moved to the ‘Riders when he and Buono were unable to agree on that tricky ratio of production versus pay.
The Lions came out of camp and dropped their season-opener in Calgary, but rattled off three straight wins and were off to a 5-2 start before a bizarre, last-second 39-38 loss in Montreal.
Two weeks later at 6-4 and sitting third in the West, the Lions needed a win to keep pace behind Calgary and Saskatchewan (8-2). It was a beautiful late summer afternoon, roof open, sun shining in, 21 degrees and a fast track. A 15-0 Lions lead at the half narrowed to 15-7 before the Leos stretched it to 22-7 heading into the fourth quarter and then as is so often the case, sports became sports.
Lulay connects with Arceneaux at the Montreal four yard-line, but as Manny falls backwards, somehow the ball is dislodged and lands in the hands of Geoff Tisdale. Lions challenge it and lose. Six plays later, Als third-string quarterback Josh Neiswander serves one up to Dante Marsh at the Montreal 42. Just like his pals Korey Banks and Ryan Phillips, when Marsh takes one away, his mind and his body become laser-focused on one thing: the end zone.
Marsh comes up short however, all the way down to the three yard-line, but no love.
How many games over the years have turned on one of those touchdown-saving tackles? The Lions have been on both ends; every team has – it’s why you don’t quit on a play whether you have the ball or you’re chasing the guy who does.
Three yards short and out comes Lulay and the offence.
Coffin time… put this in the end zone, go up 29-7 with less than 10 minutes to go. No third-string pivot is going to bring them back… not against Phillips, Marsh, Banks, Biggie, Anton and E.T. … put this in and let’s get ready to go to Saskatchewan…
It’s sunny and unseasonably hot in BC for April, the grass at the practice facility is green and lush after multiple cuts. Travis has just returned from Toronto after taking part in the CFL’s offseason photo and video shoot with adidas and TSN – he’s beaming.
“That was a lot of fun. So many great players. This league is so full of talent, I’m so pumped about being on this team, wearing these colours. I just can’t wait for camp.”
No, he’s not beaming. To be accurate, he’s floating. He’s a dad three times over to a trio of laughing little redheads. He’s had a monster of an offseason in the training room, he’s throwing with velocity, accuracy and he still has a month before camp starts. He’s ready, he’s stronger than ever and there is a look in his eye that tells you he’s got plenty to offer his new old head coach, even if the new kid is pegged as the face of the franchise.
“One team, one goal. It’s the only time the number ‘one’ actually means something to me,” he says seriously.
He was never worried about being the guy on the side of the building, on the lunch kit, on the ticket or the souvenir cup, so why start thinking about it now? Like any truly great player in any league, when it comes to his name the only place it matters is where they engrave it, like on a trophy or a ring.
And if we’ve learned anything in a quarterback-centric league like the CFL, if you don’t have two then only having one means your team and your season is a hit away from having none.
That night in Hamilton, when someone grabbed his arm and started this whole damn thing. The heartbreaking loss in a Western Final a month later. Geroy’s trade and a pedestrian 6-4 start to a 2013 season that needs a kick-start right now with this win over Montreal and…
…and then Travis lowered his shoulder instead of going out of bounds.
He lowered his shoulder because going out of bounds is not how Travis Lulay has ever played football. He lowered his shoulder because the play prior, linebacker Chip Cox got him for an 11-yard sack with the ball on the damn three yard-line and that sure as hell wasn’t going happen again. He lowered his shoulder because this touchdown run is going to put the final nail in these guys.
He lowered his shoulder because going out of bounds and avoiding difficult things on the field or in life is not how the Lulays do things when things need doing.
He lowered that shoulder into Geoff Tisdale, plowed into the end zone and hammered that nail. He also dislocated the shoulder from its socket and he had no idea how difficult things were about to get.
Kim, Travis and one year-old Parker stayed in a hotel that night, while back at BC Place they whispered about him being done for the year. He said nothing. He simply went to work and got himself back on the field.
Let’s face it, average folks don’t have their shoulder jacked out of its socket in mid-September and then bounce back to give their team a chance and to try and break the heart of an entire province in November without having the kind of inner strength every parent hopes to instill in their kid.
He did though.
The look on their green painted faces, the way he silenced their deafening roar as he completed pass after pass into a biting prairie wind, moving the sticks, killing the clock while they prayed their Grey Cup tickets weren’t bought in vain like in 2003 or 1995 when hated rivals took over their beloved team’s locker room.
He gave it everything he had and built a 25-16 lead heading into the fourth and then Darian found his legs and before you knew it, a nine-point lead turned into a four-point deficit with less than a minute to play.
“You always remember the playoff games. We won 58 and-a-half minutes of that game, but it wasn’t enough, you have to finish.”
Watching the ‘Riders roll through a Western Final win in Calgary helped along by multiple Stampeder turnovers certainly didn’t help to ease their pain.
Lulay now had to make a decision on the long-term health of his shoulder. The proposed procedure wasn’t intended to actually repair what had happened in September, Travis was able to rehabilitate that on his own and return to action. Instead, the surgery was supposed to strengthen the joint and help prevent a similar injury in the future.
“Any time you start to repair joints like shoulders and knees it’s pretty invasive. Surgeries have come a long way and what doctors are able to do is remarkable, but recovery time is still a lot longer than most people realize. It’s not just range of motion, it’s more about strength and speed within that motion as well as avoiding bad habits as you recover.”
Going under the knife the week of the Grey Cup, meant he would have a six-month window to rest, recover and rehabilitate; then another three weeks of training camp under a strict pitch count to bring it along even further. For a pro quarterback, that’s about as narrow as the window can be to even have a remote chance of playing.
Six months to go from his arm in a sling and literally zero movement to heaving footballs 45 yards down the field on time, on target, with velocity and often under duress. It’s December and he can’t pick up Parker, let alone a dumbbell, or a football or even an apple.
Why has it come to this for Travis Lulay? The guy who makes himself available for any event the club needs him to fly the flag at in the offseason. The guy who speaks out against violence against women as part of the Lions most critical and publicly recognized community programs.
The guy who volunteers for the Special Olympics. The guy who routinely stops in at multiple offices to ask staffers how their offseason is going. The guy who has signed every last autograph after countless practices and posed for hundreds of pictures with fans young and old since the day he pulled number 14 over a set of pads in BC.
The kid who threw ball after ball after ball after ball in Portland at a free agent camp in 2009 just two weeks before Buono was set to head to training camp and gave the head coach reason to pause.
“I can throw it all day if you want,” he told then-quarterbacks coach Steff Kruck.
Now it’s February 2014, it’s dark, gloomy and raining. The training room is empty except for him. No music, just the buzz of the florescent lights above. He’s been patient. He’s followed the schedule and forced himself to focus on each day rather than overreaching, doing something dumb and setting himself back. Slowly the shoulder responds, but even the most basic motion is painful. This was supposed to protect the joint, why does it hurt so much?
By late February, he’s learning how to throw again. At the end March, Travis travels to Los Angeles to see Tom House, the NFL throwing guru who’s worked with the likes of Drew Brees and Tom Brady and a host of others.
While he’s there he meets quarterback John Beck, newly-signed by the Lions and a former NFL’er with the Miami Dolphins.
By the first week of April, he’s well into a throwing program and can comfortably toss it 20 yards. The problem is, a throw of 20 yards wouldn’t reach the sidelines on the short side of the field if he threw it from the near hash marks let alone the wide side.
Now it’s late April and he’s on the field for an offensive mini-camp; the club’s second such gathering since the CFL began allowing organized offseason team sessions. Oh and yeah, another year that Lions would play host to the Grey Cup.
“If I had to put a number on it, I would say I was 50% at the camp. I threw slants and check-downs, nothing over 25 yards.”
After seeing the progress his quarterback had made up to passing camp, Buono was encouraged if not pleased. While the GM isn’t known for his gambling exploits he knows this is another critical season for the club and he’s elected to hedge his bets in May by getting his team and his starter some insurance by trading a first-round pick to Ottawa for Kevin Glenn just minutes into the CFL Draft.
“My first thought was that it made perfect sense. John Beck was a veteran but not in our league. Getting Kevin gave us another proven quarterback behind centre.”
Kamloops is the perfect setting for training camp. The facilities are off the charts and the scenic beauty of the area is underappreciated by many who only choose to see it from the highway on their way to other destinations. Kamloops can be cruel though, as the sun blasts down and temperatures regularly hit the 30s at some point in camp.
By all indications, Travis was ready to roll as the full roster of Lions hit the field for the first time in 2014 on a sunny Sunday morning. Twenty minutes later, Kamloops got cruel and he was reduced to being a spectator once again after feeling a tweak in his shoulder.
That 1000-yard stare out of his helmet watching Glenn take his reps, then Beck, then Hart, then Partridge. His head swimming with the thoughts of the past six months. The buzz of those florescent lights in an empty weight room where he spent countless hours… that buzzing, like a thousand hornets.
“We all knew that on day one of camp I wasn’t 100 percent, but we felt that I could progress to that point by the end of camp. I knew it was a setback, I just didn’t know how bad.”
A CFL roster is comprised of 44 active players of which three are designated as quarterbacks. Unlike other positions on the field where even the back-ups often have at least a special teams role, not being the first or second on the depth chart means you’re reduced to charting plays, trying to be an extra set of eyes and a source of encouragement for your teammates. When you’re a quarterback on the injured list and not even permitted to dress, it’s torture.
Not playing kills the spirit of great players regardless of the sport. Travis Lulay knows this and refuses to allow it to consume him. His time will come. He lives in the gym, he throws with the reserve receivers after practice ends, he answers every reporter’s questions about his progress, he watches film and he waits.
June becomes July and daughter number two arrives for Travis and Kim as Glenn leads the Lions over Saskatchewan. He is elated as Everly joins Parker in the Lulay den. When dads see all 10 fingers, all 10 toes and hear that first cry, it’s always a relief.
July gives way to August. Finally he’s back on the roster almost 10 weeks after the setback in Kamloops. Dressing as number three isn’t the goal, but he’s got a jersey on and it feels great.
“That first game back was exciting and a big step. Before the surgery, I had made peace with myself that there was a small chance that I might not be able play anymore. Getting back on the field was a very good feeling.”
After four weeks he’s seen the field a few times, he’s taken some hits and he’s completed some passes. The club reaches the bye-week at 5-4. They’re in a race for a playoff spot. Put some wins together and they might find themselves in position to catch second place. More importantly, Travis is ready to start.
All those hours alone in the gym. The setback in Kamloops. The waiting and more than likely, the battle with self-doubt about the past number of months.
The Lions’ first trip to Ottawa after the rebirth of a franchise almost 10 years after its demise was now going to be even more compelling with Lulay back at the helm. He was nervous, anxious but focused and elated.
Lions kickoff. Henry Burris takes his team down the field for a field goal. Leos take the ball at the 35. Lulay takes his first starting snap since 2013 and hits Harris for seven yards. He hits Gore for 10 more on the next play and Stefan Logan for 11 on the play after that; Olafioye decides it’s message-sending time and the Lions are backed-up 15. Lulay sacked on the next play and a run for Harris on second-and-long fools no one, they punt.
“That first series as a starter felt familiar. It was comfortable like this was where I supposed to be.”
With four consecutive completions and a Paul McCallum field goal to take a 6-5 lead at the half, Lulay looked like his game was returning to him. Throwing for 92 yards over two quarters wasn’t off the charts, but being 10 of 15 with no picks means he was seeing the field correctly and doing what Travis does, manage the game.
He was four of seven in the third quarter as both defences dug in and the Lions managed just a single point on a punt to enter the final frame up 7-5. After the teams exchanged a pair of two-and-outs, the lack of fireworks on the ground were more than made up for by a frightening electrical storm quickly approaching the stadium.
Rain, wind and thunder arrived in epic proportions as Burris started moving the ball with a little more than half the quarter still on the clock. Four minutes later they were lining up for a 33-yard field goal with biblical amounts of rain now pounding players and fans alike. Kicking field goals isn’t easy in the best of conditions, in a downpour it’s a roll of the dice. Sure enough, Ottawa holder loses control of the ball, turnover. Then a lightning strike that cracks so loud you’d think the Earth was opening up.
They don’t clear a CFL field often, but when they do it’s for good reason. After waiting 23 minutes in the room and using a few more to get warmed up, Lulay and the offence begin from their 26. Like the preceding 55 minutes, the Lions sputtered.
Logan run for no gain, Poblah for nine, Beck in short yardage ahead for one and a first-down, 3:24 left. Iannuzzi for six but wiped out by a procedure call, first and 15, Brown run for three. Then staring down second and 12, Lulay with a dagger to Arceneaux, 29 yards to the Ottawa 47, clock at 2:25. Still need to move the ball… Logan caught in the backfield loses four, second and 14, Lulay with another dagger, Courtney Taylor for 16 to the Ottawa 35, 1:53 left.
It’s one of those rules that makes a CFL game extremely difficult to win, because in order to do so, you have to play all 60 minutes. No handshakes between coaches with time left on the board only because one team has run out of timeouts. No, in the CFL, if you don’t move the ball in those final three minutes you wind up having to give it back because the clock stops after each and every play. No freebies.
Lulay does not want to give the ball back to Henry and just like the game 355 days earlier against Montreal, one or two more plays will put a nail in these guys.
Logan run, gain of one, 1:29 left, second and nine. Lions on the Ottawa 34, which means at worst it’s a 41-yard field goal attempt for McCallum, but the balls are all soaked and heavy, the field is soaked, everything is soaked actually and the last thing you want is to invite disaster, so the Lions are going to have get the ball down the field in order to keep the clock rolling.
Second and nine, Travis takes the snap, steps back and gets ready to throw. The hammer is about to come down on the nail. It’ll be a win, an ugly one but in the end they don’t ask how, just how many…
…and then sports become sports again and Travis loses the handle for a split second. The ball is out, it’s on the ground, he’s gone down too, but he can see it with 300-pound bodies crashing down around him… and he reaches out.
Why Travis, why risk it? Why reach out and risk it all again?
Travis Lulay loves being a dad. He loves being a dad like kids love Christmas morning. He tried to fool himself into thinking that baby number three was going to be a boy. No chance Travis. His brother is a father of three as well, all girls of course with their most recent arrival coming just a week before Jade made her appearance on Travis and Kim’s growing roster this past February.
Dennis and Loni Lulay have two sons and six grandchildren, all girls. Should be a heck of a volleyball team for Kim to coach.
Travis loves being a dad because his dad loves being one too. Dennis Lulay decided a long time ago that working on a logging crew in Oregon wasn’t in the best interest of his health or the future of his family. He switched gears into financial planning, a business he operates with Travis’ younger brother. Together they help people plan for the future in a world where the future gets a little foggy sometimes.
Like lowering his shoulder almost a year to the day against Montreal, Travis reaches out for that wet ball in Ottawa because he’s the one who dropped it and in that instant, he knows it’s on him to fix this… he reaches out because he will not put it on his defence to try to win this thing, not after they’ve already played their asses off allowing just five points. They deserve to watch the offense end it.
“When the ball slipped out, I turned to find it and I slipped too and went down. To be honest it was a freak play. The field was just so wet.”
Lineman Kirby Fabien ended up with the ball, but Travis was down, his shoulder had taken the full force of one of those 300-pound behemoths crashing to the field. When 300-pounds meets a surgically repaired shoulder, the chances of the shoulder winning aren’t good.
“Laying there I knew my shoulder was out. I was in shock more than I was in pain.”
It took everything he had to come back to this point, now it took everything he had to get from the bench to the room. His shoulder was out and a team doctor couldn’t get it back in, not on the first try and not on the second. They walked to the tunnel while Henry looked to bring his team back.
They walked to the tunnel so cameras couldn’t see the doctor try a third time to get his shoulder back in its socket and finally it relented.
The defence held, the Lions prevailed 7-5 after running Henry dry of downs and time.
The emotion of it all overcame him 20 steps under the stands. Lulay fell to his knees sobbing. Glenn and Beck trying to console him, their heads against his, wishing there was something they could do to help Travis in this tragic moment of pain, vulnerability and utter heartbreak. All they could do was hold him, help him up and walk him to the room.
Silence in the room. No celebration, no game balls, eyes on the floor as Benevides too tries control his emotions while he quietly acknowledges their effort and the win. The flight home is quiet, reserved and tense in spite of the victory.
God bless Kevin Glenn. He is a very likeable guy. He’s funny, he’s engaging and he’s a hell of a quarterback. This wasn’t Kevin’s team though and he’d tell you that too.
When Travis reached for that ball and 2014 came crashing down, so did the spirit of the Lions. Travis once again did everything he possibly could to try and get back on the field. His teammates too tried to rally, but injuries at other positions and two blowout losses to finish the regular season had them limping to a 9-9 record and a crossover spot against Montreal.
He dressed as a backup for the Eastern Semi-Final and when Benevides asked him in warm-up what he felt he had, Travis had to be honest with his head coach. This would be Kevin’s game to win or lose with rookie Travis Partridge still an untested pupil of the Canadian game and John Beck back in Vancouver still feeling the effects of a concussion he suffered late in the season.
The first quarter was pretty much even, but by the half the Lions trailed 15-3. At the end of the third frame Montreal led 36-3 and both Kevin Glenn and the BC Lions had checked out on 2014, leaving the pupil to scramble around and play out the season. A week or so later, their head coach was relieved of his duties and that high-water mark in Hamilton back in 2012 when the club was 11-4 now seemed like a lifetime ago.
When Wally hired Jeff Tedford before last season, Travis had his first ‘offensive’ head coach since joining the club. Tedford brought in long-time coordinator George Cortez and the well-documented plan to install a high-tempo offence was off and running.
Lulay was back at the helm after another offseason spent with his shadow in the facility weight room back in Surrey. After a bye in week one of the regular season, the Lions were slated to start the 2015 campaign in Ottawa. Seemed only fitting.
First Lions possession, first play of 2015, Lulay to Arceneaux, 50 yards. Okay, maybe we have something here.
If only it was that easy. If only a single play could set the tone for an entire season… or maybe one play did that very thing later on when Ryan Phillips, the same guy who hadn’t missed a single game as a Leo in 180 opportunities, pulled his hamstring bad enough that he would miss the next three games on the same play that an interception sailed through his hands into the welcoming arms of Greg Ellingson.
The Lions lost their opener, but Lulay bounced back with heroic performances the next two weeks beating the ‘Riders in an overtime thriller at home and then in Regina a week later as he galloped for 105 yards in the rain.
Up and down the season went; a win here and there, but more often than not there were losses, and ugly ones too. Losses after leading by three touchdowns. Losses on blown coverages. Losses in overtime and in Hamilton, a humiliating loss by 30.
That night in Hamilton, when they were 11-4, now three years removed. This is not the BC Lions.
In 2015 however, yes it was the BC Lions and as much as Travis tried to right the ship, the ship was on fire as the Hall of Fame GM’s simile goes. As much as they tried to put the fire out and change their approach to the offence, the ship burned.
Montreal, September 3rd, 2015 … 12 days short of three years since Travis lowered his shoulder against the Alouettes. The ship is on fire, Lions are 3-4 and Travis refuses to let seven previous weeks of general frustration distract him.
Als start the game with a 46-yard kick return by Stefan Logan, defence holds but Montreal’s punt has the Lions pinned at the seven. A pair of completions, a penalty and pair of runs by Andrew Harris have the Lions out to their 40 before they’re forced to punt.
Three plays later they have the ball on Montreal’s 40 after Jabar Westerman forces a fumble and fellow lineman Mic’heal Brooks scoops it up. Lulay’s pass to Gore is batted away on first down.
Second and 10, Lulay is flushed to his right. After pulling the ball down rather than risk an interception, Travis rolls to his right, before he can escape for a first-down Kyries Hebert is dragging him down from behind in one of those plays that’s not quite a horse collar, but still creeps into that gray area when a defender leaves his feet and tries to leverage his weight on the legs of a ball carrier while yanking him backwards.
High ankle sprains take a long time to heal and that’s a typical injury that comes from your toes jamming into the turf as your body twists backwards. The other kind of injury that can occur takes place a little further up and it takes a lot longer to heal. The MCL stabilizes the interior of the knee and now Travis is in the locker room looking at his knee beginning to swell.
It cost him four games. The first, one of those ugly ones at home against Ottawa. The second, into the belly of the beast in Calgary where John Beck is hit so hard on his blind side that the ball is separated from his grip and his pectoral muscle feels like he stood in front of a cannon.
Beck’s season is over and sports becomes sports. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to a young man named Jonathon Jennings…
…and eight weeks later as the Lions take it on the chin in the Western Semi-Final, there is hope. Just like in 2010, another emerging pivot appears to have the stuff teams can build around or so the story goes.
The first day of the club’s 2016 mini-camp has ended. This one is different than past offseason gatherings the Lions have staged previously. Just 27 bodies on the field, the vast majority of which have been in Canada less than 12 hours. A sprinkling of vets (if young Bo Lokombo can truly be considered a vet) among these hopefuls, but it’s a busy media day especially for the two young pivots, Greg McGhee and Keith Price. Black helmets atop black practice jerseys. Time is marching on, change is knocking on the door.
Standing well behind them in jeans and chatting with Geroy and Khari Jones, is the veteran pivot who has no obligation to be around the facility, but he is anyway because it’s another opportunity to learn, improve and help his teammates. He’s beaming again. He knows they’re coming for him, for Jonathon too… they have to, it’s their nature just like the story of the scorpion and the frog. It’s the same way he came for Buck, Jarious and a guy named Zac Champion seven years prior.
Travis is different though. He knows the long game has only begun. He’ll help you understand everything you need to know about the offence; your primary receiver on this play, the motion of the back on that play, the blocking scheme here, what you want to make the safety to do there… and then he’ll go on the field and do it without thinking and do it way better than you.
So a month from now, when training camp calls and 85 guys trot out onto the field in Kamloops hoping they’re one of 56 or so who get to back to Vancouver on a bus and not back to obscurity on a plane, Travis Lulay will come back to the big city and take on whatever role Wally Buono asks of him.
Then Travis Lulay will go home to the four most important people in his life and be the kind of person each of us can learn a lot from these days.
Sorry about the long read, I’ve wanted to do this story for some time now and I guess 7,000 words is what it took to tell it.
Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m a big fan of Travis Lulay the person and the player. We still laugh at having been together from day one – I was there in Portland in 2009 helping Wally, Neil and the coaches at that free agent camp. It’s a wonder Travis was able to do anything with me tossing balls back to him all afternoon… my knees melting into the turf in Lake Oswego.
I’ve had incredible conversations and debates with him over the years ranging from politics to all-time great episodes of The Office. We talk about our daughters, about our parents, about growing up in Oregon and a lot about life. We don’t talk a lot about football for some reason, it doesn’t seem to come up much despite seeing each other about 300 days-a-year around the facility, in the dressing room at BC Place, on a plane to or from wherever, or in that empty, silent weight room in the winter when I pop by to go chat with Billy or Kato.
Beyond our talks, I have also been very fortunate to be around him when he became a dad and a few other triumphs like the Grey Cup run in 2011 of course.
Trying to text him the offensive play calls from Regina when he was back in Bellingham sitting beside Kim waiting for Everly to arrive was one of those very good memories. Equally as memorable, but completely heartbreaking, was texting her from the locker room in Ottawa, knowing that Travis was in trouble.
We all felt heartache in Ottawa in 2014. It was terrible seeing him under the stands that night with John and Kevin trying to somehow make it alright. For some reason though, the person who seems best equipped to handle enormous success as well as tremendous adversity and everything in between, is Travis himself.
I’m lucky to call him a friend and I’m grateful for his approval of this piece as well as for Kim digging up the pics. We’re lucky to have him as part of our organization and so are all of you.