O’Leary: Reilly was the consummate leader

On a cold January day almost exactly nine years ago, a group of reporters made their way over to Commonwealth Stadium.

The Edmonton Elks went by a different name back then, but they were in a spot similar to where they are now. A year removed from trading Ricky Ray, the need for a franchise quarterback was obvious. Ed Hervey was just a few weeks into the job when he traded a few picks away for the rights to Michael Reilly, who quickly signed a contract with the club.

Hervey wouldn’t say a lot publicly that season, but there was one line from that day that stuck with me, a precursor of sorts that I wouldn’t fully understand until many years later.

What until you hear him talk, Hervey said.

If you were around that Edmonton team in 2013, you saw them take their lumps in a 4-14 season. That was especially true for Reilly, who took hit after punishing hit in his first year as a full-time starter. No matter how bad the loss, no matter how bad the various ailments that would accumulate, Reilly stood in and played the part of starting QB to a tee.

Reilly certainly talked the talk and through the lows and eventual highs that he found in Edmonton and his 11-year CFL career, he also walked the walk, laying the template for what any team would want from its leader.

The BC Lions announced Reilly’s retirement on Monday afternoon. A no-doubt hall of famer, he sits 14th in all-time passing yards (34,805) and has two Grey Cups to his name, winning one with the Lions in 2011 and one with the Elks in 2015.

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In 2017, DeVone Claybrooks recalled the worst hit he’d seen the Calgary Stampeders dole out on Reilly. His eyes lit up when he looked back on it, the way that only a former defensive lineman turned defensive coordinator could.

He remembered Charleston Hughes hitting him straight on and then Micah Johnson running in from behind, the two of them bringing a combined 500-plus pounds together, sandwiching Reilly with the kind of hit that would have a regular person saying, thanks but no thanks and calling it a day.

“I thought he was dead!” Claybrooks said, almost getting up to a yell as he remembered the play.

“He shook it off and I think he completed a 60-yard bomb the next play.”

Toughness is a required component of any quarterback – ask any veteran QB about the pain they’ve dealt with – but Reilly somehow took physicality to a near cartoonish level. He could be sandwiched, slammed into the turf or knocked off of his feet. Time after time he’d get up, get back in the huddle and throw that bomb of a pass, or dodge the human missile launched at him and find a first down or the end zone.

Reilly had no problem being the voice in the room for his team, but the physical example he set on game days set the tone for the rest of the roster. Reilly’s approach to the game and the sacrifices he was willing to make for first downs, for touchdowns and wins echoed the way Michael Jordan described his leadership approach in The Last Dance. He might ask the world of his teammates, but there was nothing asked of them that he didn’t do himself.

That four-win team in 2013 turned a corner in 2014 and went 12-6, falling to Calgary in the Western Final. In 2015, Reilly led Edmonton to a 14-4 season and a Grey Cup win over Ottawa. He won his first MOP award in 2017, which would be his second of three-straight 5,000-plus passing yard seasons. The coaches around him changed, as did the GM and his teammates, but those Edmonton teams continued to personify Reilly’s grit and determination.

In what turned out to be his final season, Reilly led the league in passing yards and played 13 of 14 games while dealing with injuries (Photo: The Canadian Press)

In June of 2019, Reilly was heading into a new, but familiar situation. He left Edmonton as a free agent and went back to BC, where he’d started his CFL career in 2010. He reunited with Hervey, who’d been hired as the Lions’ GM in 2017.

I connected with him to talk about a charitable donation that he was able to make on behalf of a league partner. He opted to fund a mental health resource in BC. There was something about that conversation that made me feel there was a personal reason for the donation. At the end of the interview I asked him about it and he said he had something he’d like to talk about once he was out of training camp. I flew out to Vancouver a couple of weeks later, ahead of the start of the season.

At a diner in Surrey, seated with his father, Pat, wife Emily and their daughters Brooklyn and Cadence, Michael very bravely opened up about his experiences with panic attacks and his desire to end the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues. We worked together on this piece. I can’t speak for Michael, but it remains the thing I’m the most proud of in my time at the CFL.

There’s so much I’ll remember from that day and the piece that it produced, but I was especially impressed with Michael’s awareness of his spot in the Canadian sports landscape and the opportunity he had to make a difference.

“I know I have a platform right now that I won’t always have,” he said.

“This is something that’s worth using it for. Even if this reaches one person, it’s worth it. Hundreds of thousands of people watched us play football last season and had no idea what I went through.”

Reilly’s time in BC certainly didn’t go the way he’d hoped it would. Hervey’s tenure as GM was a short one that saw him leave the post in 2020. He just found his way back to the CFL last month when he joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ front office.

The Lions missed the playoffs in both of Reilly’s seasons back in the lower mainland. He dealt with a nagging elbow injury through the majority of the 2021 season but, in a move that should have surprised exactly zero people, he played in 13 of the Lions’ 14 games. In many ways he was still the same Michael Reilly out there. He was fearless and relentlessly chased the big play. The 2021 stats will tell you that he led the league in passing yards, with 3,283 and 14 touchdowns to six interceptions and rushed for four more.

In sports and in life, we very rarely get to choose how things end. Reilly turns 37 on Tuesday. In a lot of ways, his decision seems like perfect timing.

In 2020, Reilly started training to be a firefighter, which in many ways will allow some of his best traits as a football player to be nurtured. I remembered something his wife Emily said about him the week that Reilly won the MOP award in 2017.

“I think that he is so compartmentalized because he has to be. Football is very demanding and requires a lot of his effort and time but from our personal lives perspective, he is exactly the same,” she said.

“If we hit a challenge or something needs to be addressed in our family life, very much so he is the same exact way. He is not one to sleep on it. He’ll put his entire heart into it and try to figure out what it’s going to take. The way he leads the football team, he’s the leader in our family as well.”

He’ll no doubt take the same approach with the next steps in his life.

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