There’s a photo of Lirim Hajrullahu taken in the celebratory aftermath of last November’s Grey Cup, the trophy lifted triumphantly over his head just inches above his Toronto Argonauts’ championship hat. The look on his face is a priceless mix of shock and happiness.
There’s something deeper there, too, something that goes beyond football and speaks to Hajrullahu’s remarkable origin story. The photo chronicles the end – or perhaps the mid-point – to a remarkable journey.
“When that moment came, it just felt like every kick and everything that I’ve experienced, just came to fruition in that moment,” Hajrullahu says, when asked to explain. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life, especially given everything my family and I have been through.”
The Hajrullahu’s have been through a lot. Born in Kosovo, Lirim and the family fled the region when he was a nine-year-old as Serbian forces attacked their town. More than a million ethnic Albanians were displaced and 11,000 were killed in a war that lasted 18 months in the late 1990s. The family ended up in a refugee camp in neighbouring Macedonia.
“As we were leaving, there were tanks coming in and blowing up houses. It was mayhem… I do still think about it. When times get hard, I think it’s important to remember where I came from,” he says. “We lived in a tent with nine people in it but we had to do what we had to do to stay safe.
“We were just happy to be alive at that point.”
The family bypassed a chance to immigrate to the U.S. and opted for Canada instead, ultimately settling in the St. Catharines area. Lirim played soccer at first, using sports as a social tool as he learned the language and customs, then gradually shifted his focus to football.
He played his university ball at Western – he came agonizingly close to winning a Vanier Cup – before landing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as a largely unheralded undrafted free agent. He’s worked diligently at his craft and is now considered one of the best all-around kickers in the game, a guy who can do all three jobs with a Canadian passport in his pocket.
Hajrullahu – it’s pronounced “Hy-roo-la-hoo” – attributes much of that success to Hamilton-based kicking coach Ken Urquhart, who he has worked with since his high school days. Hajrullahu has maintained the relationship through the years, flying home on the bye weeks from Winnipeg to work with him and driving up from Toronto through much of last season.
Like much of Hajrullahu’s inner circle, Urquhart was ecstatic when Hajrullahu made the decision to sign with Hamilton shortly after the CFL free agency period opened in February.
“He had to wear an Argo hat last year when he came to the games but I bought him a Ticats sweater the other day and he was overjoyed,” Hajrullahu said. “He was willing to support me but he’s Hamilton born and raised. He tells me stories all the time about his grandma coming to the games.”
Hajrullahu is hoping that Ticat fans will be equally as accepting of a player who just won a Grey Cup with their arch rival.
“Hopefully they won’t heckle as much as when I was a part of the Double Blue,” he said. “The fans in Hamilton really give it to the opposing kickers. One fan posted a comment I saw that said ‘sorry I was so mean to you when you were with Toronto, no hard feelings, right?’ I laughed.”
Hajrullahu has also made the most of his opportunities off the field. He holds three degrees, including a recently completed MBA, and is currently working as an intern analyst with Morneau Shepell, a human resources and technology company based in Toronto. He also runs a Burlington-based meal prep company with one of his former Western teammates called Healthy Eats.
Now 27, he’s watched the recent debates surrounding immigration, particularly in the United States, with interest. He notes that even those with multi-generational Canadian roots he originally came to this country from somewhere else, often under the same difficult circumstances that brought his family here.
“When Canada and other countries open their arms, I think a lot of good things come out of it,” Hajrullahu said. “Everything I’ve accomplished has happened because we were able to come to Canada and I don’t take that for granted. I try and do my part in the community, I’ve finished my education, I’m trying to live the Canadian dream.”
The snowy day last November certainly qualifies. His father and sisters were among the ten family members who watched him kick the game-winning field goal, then celebrated on the field with him afterwards. On his day with the trophy, Hajrullahu returned to his old high school in St. Catharines and travelled to his father’s workplace so he could show it off to friends.
Together, they’ve come a long way.
“Winning a Grey Cup means you’re a part of Canadian history forever and that was an amazing moment for our family,” he said. “Sometimes you forget about what freedom is really worth.”