In mid-February, we had a storm here in Blaine, Washington. I was in the front yard with my wife Kim, and our three young girls were running around and playing in the snow. School was cancelled and we were taking full advantage of the impromptu family day.

CFL free agency had opened a couple of days earlier and players were signing new deals all across the league. I had offers on the table from a couple of teams and they were waiting for my response – solid opportunities with good money and coaches I knew I’d enjoy playing for. I was flattered and humbled. Years ago I would have given anything for a team to just show a little interest. I stepped inside.

My good friend and agent Dan Vertlieb had been waiting for me to call.

“I’m ready. Let’s call them back and tell them thanks, but no thanks,” I said to Dan. There was a long pause on the end of the line.

“Ok… Trav, are you sure you’re ready for that?” he asked. We were both aware of what those calls would mean.

“I know, it feels weird, right? But yeah.”

After the call, I took a deep breath before I went back outside. Kim and I shared a knowing smile, and we went back to playing with the girls.

•••

It’s my time. After 13 years, I’m walking away from professional football.

To be fair, this conversation didn’t just start during CFL free agency. Nor did it take anybody in my inner circle by surprise. I’ve been openly telling family, friends, and media alike that I would remove myself from the emotion of the season before making any decisions, just as I have the last few years. About halfway through last season, however, I started to feel like it was going to be my last. It was a struggle to maintain my newly repaired knee to be game-ready on the weekends. As the normal wear and tear of the season added up, it took even more wind out of my sails. Everybody gets banged up during the season – I know that. But it felt different for me this time around. Still, I owed it to myself to stay true to my process in making this decision.

Waiting until the early stages of free agency provided the clarity I hoped it would. I know this is the right thing for me. I had some offers to continue playing that I would have normally been really excited to pursue. I’m proud to have been a BC Lion for my all 10 of my CFL seasons but I’m not naive to think this is the only place that I would have had a rewarding experience. There’s no shortage of good people in the CFL and a big part of me was up for the challenge and excitement of establishing myself on a new team – writing a final chapter in my playing career elsewhere. In fact, those new opportunities awakened my competitive spirit enough that I almost acted against my gut. But most people reading this understand that my body has been through a lot. And ultimately, for both myself and my family, this decision was made in the interest of my long-term health and well-being.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love the game. There’s not a doubt in my mind I would be playing again if not for the physical toll it’s taken on my body. I was faced with a decision a year ago on whether or not to walk away. I gave this same decision a lot of thought a year ago after knee surgery, but I made the decision to come back. I wasn’t done yet, and I don’t regret that one bit.

I knew I would be in recovery mode at the start of the season and I was back on the field before I expected to be. But man, that took a lot of work. Unless you’ve been through a rigorous recovery, it’s hard to explain how physically and emotionally draining it is. Every moment of every day that you’re not fully healthy you feel like you need to be doing something to improve. Nearly all of my spare time since that surgery has been consumed with various treatments – exercises, compression sleeves, ice packs, electrical stimulation units, etc… and this was the fourth major orthopaedic recovery of my career. I’m proud of the fact that I was able to come back from every one of those injuries. And today, I get to make the decision to walk away on my own terms.

•••

Even though I know this is the right the decision, I have to admit it feels strange to be here. But this lifelong football journey has taken me out of my comfort zone time and time again: I didn’t even plan to leave Oregon out of high school. I thought I would play at a small college close to home – Western Oregon, or Linfield, or Willamette. I was a small-town, small-school kid, so that’s where I thought I’d end up. But then a couple of Big Sky Conference schools came into the picture, and Montana State offered me a scholarship. They’re going to pay for my school? Oh man, I’m going to have to take them up on that offer…

A couple of months later, I was tearing up as I sat in the back of my little pickup, saying goodbye to the family and hometown I knew as Mom drove up I-5 on the way to Bozeman. After a few days of exploring my new home, I was dropped off in a room full of strangers that would become my teammates for the next four years and friends for life – it was one of the best decisions I ever made. As it turns out, that was just the first in a series of big, uncomfortable life decisions that led me down a winding road to where I am today.

And now I’m writing a piece about walking away from the game, reflecting on some of the ups and downs along the way. Maybe it will be good for me to share. Maybe I’ll regret it. But I doubt it. Among the many life lessons I’ve learned on this football journey is that stepping out of your comfort zone is the only way to grow.

Which, not coincidentally, prepares me to make this decision to leave the game now. I could gut it out again. That’s the easier decision – it’s the lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to. I know that my knee will be better than it was last season and my confidence and experience on the field would produce more good football. But the effort and energy spent maintaining my body has made it more difficult to do the little things that helped me earn success earlier in my career.

Going through notebooks from seasons past reminds me of how much I put into my preparation over the years. Those notebooks make me look like a bit of a crazy man now: hundreds of pages of plays drawn up, complete with read progressions and route adjustments. And I know there’s only a select handful of people that have spent as much total time at the Lions’ training facility as I have over the last 10 years. Because of that foundation of work, I’ve been able to perform at a high level more often than not. But all of that extra stuff – the stuff that separates good from great – suffers a bit when injuries happen and the most important thing becomes getting back on the field. It’s been more and more of a challenge to maintain the standard of excellence in preparation I have always worked toward.

•••

The funny thing is I was bulletproof in high school and college. I played my first nine years of football without so much as missing a practice, but my fortunes changed in the pros. The day after an NFL Europe game at a small clinic Berlin, I had a German teammate translate for me that I would likely need surgery on my throwing shoulder. That was my first surgery, in 2007, and after a long and rigorous rehab schedule, I fully recovered with no lingering issues for years. Dodged a bullet, I thought.

Then, in 2013, as I neared the goal line on a scramble, I lowered my shoulder to score. As I hit the turf, I knew something was up. Trainer Bill Reichelt slipped my shoulder back in on the sidelines. I was in tears the next morning, and not from the pain; I knew the road ahead had changed. I returned to play in the playoff game six weeks later, but Darian Durant heroics in the fourth quarter kept us from stealing that game in Regina. A couple weeks later, I watched the Grey Cup in a daze from pain pills and no sleep following the second surgery to my throwing shoulder. Another rigorous rehab schedule followed.

When the season opened in 2014, I started the year on the injured reserve. At the halfway point, I made my return on a stormy night in Ottawa. As we were sealing the win with a late drive, the ball slipped out of my hands. In the pile that ensued, I felt my shoulder slip out. Again. The surgery had been done to increase the stability in my shoulder, but a perfectly good shoulder can’t withstand the force of multiple 300 pounders falling on it. Walking off that field in Ottawa, I fully believed my career was over. In the locker room tunnel, the doctor put my shoulder back in and I fell to my knees. I was numb. Jon Beck and Kevin Glenn just stood by me until Wally came along and physically picked me up off the floor. The next few weeks, as I rehabbed and pondered my future, were an absolute blur…

To my surprise, at the end of the year, the Lions were going to give me another opportunity to recover. Since another surgery to my throwing shoulder would have likely meant the end of my career, I proceeded non-operatively. There were no guarantees that my shoulder would function at a high level again, but I was determined to try. Let’s strengthen this shoulder and see what’s left.

I was limited at the 2015 training camp, but as the season approached my shoulder started to come around. As fate would have it, just as my shoulder was feeling good, a sprained left knee forced me to the sidelines, opening the door for a rookie Jon Jennings to take the reigns and relegate me mostly to the sidelines for the next few years.

I would have a few more chances to be on the field, however. Fast forward to 2017, I came into the game in Hamilton and set a CFL-record for passing yards off the bench. My body felt great, my confidence was high, and the results followed with some big wins and performances over the next few weeks. I was back.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that stretch was the last time I would be fully healthy and play free and clear, and man it felt good.

Crazy that after a few years away from the role, it still felt normal. It felt right. I was confident, excited – my wife Kim and I had just celebrated our 10 year anniversary with a couple days in Whistler during the bye week. I was playing my best football. The Lions named me the starter for the playoff push. Here we go.

But, just two plays into that next start against Montreal, my knee shifted on a routine cut that I’ve made thousands of times. The MRI a few days later revealed what we already knew – torn ACL. Add MCL and meniscus tears along with a postoperative infection to further complicate the matter. As tough as that night was in Ottawa a few years before, that one almost matched it.

I knew it was going to be a beast to recover from. But overcoming is what we do as athletes. It’s in our DNA. I’ve done this before, I’ll do it again. So I decided to give it another go.

And though we didn’t win a championship in 2018, I have a feeling that as time goes on it will feel more and more rewarding. I made a full recovery to play again. We had some good moments and made a mid-season run, but we just ran out of gas late in the season. We didn’t have anything left. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. I didn’t have anything left. I can honestly say I left it all out there. Which leads me to today.

•••

There’s no question those experiences helped me grow and have made me a stronger, more resilient person. But I won’t miss those moments of heartache. I also won’t miss being asked about the pick I threw a few days ago, or having a stranger (who didn’t realize he was talking to the current starting quarterback fresh off a loss) tell me the Lions should start Jarious next week. Good tip, buddy… I won’t miss the negativity that happens on social media after a loss. “You’re the worst QB in Lions history! #GTFO” (Both of those moments came during a Grey Cup-winning and MOP season. Always take the criticism with a grain of salt, right?)

What will I miss? The people. And man, I’ve been fortunate to be around some incredible people. When I was a young player trying to stick in the NFL, I got to share QB rooms every day with the likes of Matt Hasselbeck and Drew Brees. Those guys have no idea how much of an impact they made on me as a young man and QB.

Knowing my wife was in Montana working and I was not travelling while on practice squad in Seattle, Matt invited me to church with his family and to his house to watch the Seahawks away game one Sunday when he was injured. Talk about an experience – having a beer with Matt from his home tap, watching the team he had helped bring to relevance in Seattle play. We only speak occasionally these days, mostly via social media, but I watched him from afar gracefully transition from franchise guy to mentor and backup into retirement.

I’d been a member of the Saints for just one day when Drew Brees invited me to work his charitable event that weekend. Again I was in a new place on a new team and Kim was in Montana, and he saw an opportunity to involve someone. We spent a day deep-sea fishing off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana before we met Make-a-Wish kids and took them on a fishing trip with some of their favorite Saints players (and a few guys like me). Drew didn’t need my help, he was just trying to include a young free agent QB. That’s true mentor-leadership.

After being released by the Seahawks, I waited outside Mike Holmgren’s office for an hour. I just wanted to shake his hand and thank him for the opportunity. What he told me surprised me.

“So what’s next for you, Trav?”

“I want to give the CFL a chance. I’ve talked with the team in BC a few times about an opportunity up there, and I still think I can play, so I want to see that through.”

“Oh good, good. You should. I think you can play, too. You just need to go somewhere that they give you a legitimate chance to prove it…”

The irony of that moment was not lost on me. But it kept a glimmer of confidence alive in my pro football aspirations. If one of the NFL’s legendary coaches believed I could play, there was no reason for me to question that.

Since becoming part of the CFL fraternity, I have been so appreciative of the people and relationships made over the last 10 years.

After my first preseason game in 2009, a Calgary assistant coach came over to introduce himself and let me know he thought I played well. I played my college football in Montana where Dave Dickenson is a legend, so I knew who I was talking to. That small vote of confidence carried a lot of weight as I tried to earn my stripes in Canada.

In 2012, as Kim and I were approaching the due date of our first child, we were scheduled to play in Hamilton. This is essentially a four-day business trip. Teammate Angus Reid’s wife, Jen, stayed with Kim at our house in case the baby came early.

A few days after we returned both my parents and in-laws made it to the hospital in Langley to be there when I brought her out of the delivery room. The only non-family member in that room? Mike Reilly. Four days later he made his first start in my place. It’s only fitting that he now holds the keys to the BC Lions as I step away, and it honestly makes it easier knowing the Lions QB situation is in more-than-capable hands.

Wally Buono was the guy that finally gave me that chance to prove myself on the field. He’s picked me up when I was down, and been consistent in his approach to life and football throughout the 10 years I’ve known him. Observing and learning from one of the CFL’s all-time greats has been a real treat.

And that 2017 knee surgery I had? Well, a few weeks later I had to go in right away for a knee washout procedure to clear infected fluid from the joint. It was Halloween, and I wanted Kim to stay home to take the girls out trick-or-treating. The guy who picked me up after practice and drove me home from the hospital that night? Jonathon Jennings.

These are real-life moments that happen outside of the public eye of football, but those relationships are what that have left the biggest imprint on my life.

•••

I’ll also miss the good times. And even though there’s been some heartache, there has been no shortage of incredible moments on the field. Winning a championship as a starting QB – in our home city in a beautiful, newly-renovated BC Place – was the ultimate high. That is the reason we play the game. All the years of work and sacrifice and diving into the unknown was absolutely worth it for that moment. It was as good as you hope it to be, even though the celebration experience is short-lived. That memory only grows fonder with time, and striving to reach that moment again was the motivating factor for the remainder of my career.

But there are many lesser-known moments along the way that I’ll never forget. Throwing my little brother a long TD in the state semifinals in high school. Beating rival Montana in Missoula as a true freshman in 2002 to send our program to the playoffs for the first time in 16 years, helping restore some pride and relevance to the program. A 60 yard rushing TD in my first pro start in NFL Europe to seal a win. Throwing a preseason touchdown to Manny Arceneaux in 2009, a play that likely solidified both of us making the team and keeping a dream alive. Years later, in 2015, I threw Manny a game-winning, walk-off touchdown in overtime at BC Place in that same spot on the field. During his celebration, he threw the ball into the stands… and my wife caught it! You can’t make this stuff up.

The consecutive TD games streak during the 2011-2012 seasons was noteworthy. That game coming off the bench in Hamilton is something I’ll never forget. Returning from this latest knee injury to beat Winnipeg on a walk-off field goal last season was an incredible moment! And watching my three daughters put their No. 14 jerseys on each week and get all excited to come into the city for the Lions games? That’s been pretty dang special. I’ve had some incredible experiences – the list could go on and on. Through it all, I absolutely consider myself one of the lucky ones.

My wife of 12 years, Kim has been with me every step of the way. (She’s quick to point out that we started dating before I was a recognized quarterback in high school…) Though football was the reason for long-distance in college and a shortened honeymoon after we got married, she has supported me endlessly and followed me around the globe to chase a dream. I’m so grateful our three daughters – Parker, Everly, and Jade – got to share a few years of this football journey with us. You guys are my world.

My parents likely burned through any money we saved on scholarships traveling to support my brother and me over the years. And that first CFL preseason game in 2009 I mentioned? My mom bought my dad a plane ticket to Calgary for Father’s Day to be there for it. You know, just in case it was the last time I played football… They were both at the playoff game in Hamilton last year, knowing full well it could be my last. For instilling in me a faith that has endured me through all times, and a lifetime of love and support – thank you guys.

Playing quarterback, it was only natural for my little brother to be a receiver. We spent so many days out on a field, just the two of us working to get better. My in-laws have been up for a bunch of games. Both my mom and mother-in-law have helped Kim hold down the fort when I was away at training camp, or laid up for a bit after surgery. I’ve had aunts and uncles and cousins come to games over the years. My agent Dan Vertlieb has been a trusted friend and sounding board for all things life and football for years. All of your support is appreciated.
Thank you to all the teammates and coaches I’ve had over the years. It takes a lot of work to win, and it’s a special thing when it all comes together. I’ll never forget all the effort that went into every workout, practice, and game. I’m grateful to all of you that have helped better me as a person and as a player over the years.

Thank you to everyone at the BC Lions organization. David Braley and Wally gave me the chance years ago, and now I’m excited for the future with Ed Hervey at the helm. To everyone in support roles – from the training staff, media and community relations, equipment staff, payroll, faith formation to mental health coaches – you have all made a lasting impression on me.

And to all the various media outlets that cover the CFL, thank you for telling our stories and generating buzz for our game.

Finally, the fans and supporters of the CFL are the driving force behind our game. Your passion has allowed so many guys like me to live out a childhood dream. Lions fans – I’ve seen jerseys in the stands, received gifts for my girls, cards for birthdays and injuries, prayers for recovery, and seen countless messages of support on social media. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the orange and black.

So now, as I transition from the identity that defined me through much of my formative years into life after football, there are plenty of emotions. But the strongest of those is gratitude.

With appreciation,

 

 

 

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Travis Lulay
Travis Lulay played 10 years with the B.C. Lions winning the Grey Cup and the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award in 2011. He is married to Kim, his high school sweetheart, and they have three daughters Parker, Everly and Jade.