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October 3, 2019

Lyles Playing With Heart On His Sleeve

Jamel Lyles is late for this interview. And that’s okay because the reason behind it is the exact same reason he has earned a spot on the active roster: extra work after practice. After going through those drills with running backs coach Nik Lewis, there will be the meticulous, but necessary meetings and film study as he prepares to take on the Toronto Argonauts in another must-win game on Saturday. He does it all for Jaylen Sandhu.

Pro football players draw inspiration from many different things. Competition, camaraderie and financial well-being just to name a few. For Surrey product Jamel Lyles, all of those apply. His biggest inspiration, however, comes from honouring his late friend Sandhu who was stabbed to death at the age of 19. Lyles and Sandhu played football and baseball together – the latter at Whalley Little League right across the street from the Lions’ practice facility – and the rookie running back is proud to carry on his friend’s legacy on the football field.

“That’s my brother for life,” said Lyles after another productive day of practice.

“On the daily, I always think about him. Being drafted by the Lions and playing for the team, I’m now in the community where he passed away so I’m consistently reminded that not every day is guaranteed. I have an opportunity to be able to play a sport that I love and get paid for it. I’m going to give 110 per cent every time I am on the field.”

It’s easy for Jamel to have his pal’s legacy on his mind. After all, he still wears an old Calvin Klein shirt of Sandhu’s that he kept. Even ripping the shirt in junior football wasn’t a reason for him to throw it out.

“There’s a big hole in my chest, but I still wear it, no matter what,” he said.

Lyles was chosen in the eighth round of this year’s CFL Draft. His stint at the University of Manitoba included Canada West Rookie of the Year honours in 2015. Sandwiched in between his three years with the Bisons was a season with the Westshore Rebels of BC Junior Football where he racked up 15 touchdowns and over 1,600 yards rushing.

After a strong showing in his first CFL training camp, Lyles had to go through the typical rookie routine and wait for his chance to shine in a regular season game. His patience and hard work on the practice field finally paid off on September 13th against Ottawa and he hasn’t looked back since.

“It’s been awesome. I have great vets that are teaching me what to do and making sure I’m prepared,” he said.

“As a rookie coming in, you’ve just got to realize that you’re at the bottom of the food chain sometimes. You’ve got to stay patient because you know you’re here for a reason, right? It’s not just to sit around. You’ve just got to keep working and keep grinding on a daily basis.”

One thing is for certain: his work ethic wasn’t lost on the coaching staff.

“When you get to this level, everybody is talented. What separates the haves and the have-nots is the work ethic in practice and he does a great job,” said DeVone Claybrooks.

“He’s got two great examples with Rut (Brandon Rutley) and John (White) who work very hard at practice and he’s following their lead. He’s doing a great job and he’s embracing the role that we’re giving him. Every week we trust him a little more and we try to expand on it.”

Lyles proudly suited up for North Surrey Minor Football and later starred at Lord Tweedsmuir High School. This week, his football life will come full circle when he represents the Lions at one of their community football nights. The chance to coach kids on a field he once played on will indeed be special and remind him of the path he took to achieving his professional dream. And the kids he inspires can look at him as an example to follow.

“It’s almost burned in the back of my brain. I literally remember being in the huddle when professional athletes and the BC Lions came to my practice,” recalls Lyles.

“It is definitely rewarding to be in that position and give knowledge to the kids and show them that it is possible to go from community ball all the way to the pros. Just like anything else in life, it is a process and you just have to be patient. I also have some old coaches of mine who are still coaching that remind me how much the kids love having me out. It’s rewarding. That’s what it’s all about, just giving back. It’s awesome to see the shine in these kids’ eyes.”

Now that his patience has paid off, Lyles has shown his versatility. Along with carrying the ball three times for 62 yards over the last three games, Lyles had a big 39-yard kickoff return to help put the Lions in position to score points before last week’s thrilling victory over the Alouettes. As the squad looks to keep its slim playoff hopes alive, the rookie back has loved contributing to this win streak.

“I honestly prefer it like this, to be thrown into the fire,” said Lyles.

“We’re coming out here to compete and win. We try to go 1-0 this week and next week do the same thing. It pushes me to be perfect and on top of my assignments. I love it. Pressure makes diamonds.”

And as he looks to win more games and play a bigger role on offence and special teams, he knows one thing: Jaylen will always be watching over him.

“I know he’s very proud of me, but at the same time not proud enough. He can’t be proud enough because I probably should have scored that one touchdown (against Ottawa) for sure. There was only one guy to beat. The standard is there and the bar will always be set high. Always one step further I can go.”

What better way to honour him than scoring this week? And another win, of course.

Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com