Until lambs become lions: an ode to Solomon Elimimian

Photo courtesy: BC Lions

The day Solomon Elimimian retired, TSN radio in Vancouver was pulled off the air.

The two events, both saddening for CFL fans in this city, were obviously unrelated, but it would be difficult to find a more fitting symbol for how much the imposing middle linebacker meant to the B.C. Lions’ faithful over the last decade.

Elimimian’s accomplishments need no introduction. He was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2010. Twice named the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player. The first true defender to win Most Outstanding Player. The holder of both the first and second spot on the all-time tackles in a season record list. A six-time all-star and a Grey Cup champion.

But Elimimian seemed so much more than just those numbers. He was larger than life as a player, not due to a bombastic personality or crazy antics, but simply because he was better than anyone else.

Elimimian always appeared to me like a man from another time. A great leader from an era when men still battled for territory with handheld weaponry. Ferocious, relentless, and yet coldly intelligent. People gravitated to him and they still do.

It wasn’t just players, either. In a market in which passion for the CFL has faded in the general population, Elimimian transcended that barrier. He arrived in the league at a time when I was just beginning to play football and though not all of my teammates respected or followed the CFL, everyone knew Solly.

I remember my first year coaching football, Elimimian arrived at a practice to help run the Lions’ annual Punt, Pass and Kick competition. Every child, from tiny tykes to graduating seniors, had their eyes glued on Solly the entire practice. I’d like to say the coaches got them re-focused on the task at hand, but that was too difficult to do while staring.

When each group’s turn came, every coach silently jockeyed for position so they could be the guy standing beside Elimimian.

That’s the thing about the CFL, every great player is deeply woven into the fabric of a fans life. The league is intimate, personal and interconnected.

I can’t speak to you in depth about Solomon Elimimian’s character or give you an insight into his soul. I’ll leave that to veteran beat writers and teammates who knew him well, but somehow Elimimian made an impact in my life.

The first time was in the eleventh grade. I played for a high school football team that was best known for its ability to lose 60-0 and we were approaching the pinnacle of another winless season. Before our last game, a teammate who knew Solly personally asked him to give us an inspirational message and he sent one to us.

“Rise and rise again until lambs become lions.”

We promptly got our butts kicked.

But the message stuck with me. It resonated deeply as I’m sure it did with Elimimian, who was overlooked at every level and came back from injury time and again.

I stuck it to my bulletin board. When the teacher’s strike threatened our senior season and the captains ran practices in the local park by ourselves, it was my rallying cry.

That year we won a provincial championship.

While it had more to do with us finally being dropped to the lowest level of high school football than anything else, I will never forget those words.

One day I would also have to rise again and Elimimian was there too.

I fell into a dark place after graduating and it was writing about football that helped claw me out of it. Eventually, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to join 3DownNation. A week later, I was off to my first Lions game in the press box.

B.C. versus Saskatchewan. Solomon Elimimian’s return to Vancouver.

Anxiety ridden and completely out of my depth, I arrived to find I had been given post-game locker room access. Just 22 and without any journalism training, I had no clue what to do. I honestly didn’t believe I should be there and I don’t think anyone else did either. In a panic, I texted Justin Dunk.

“Make sure you get Solomon Elimimian. He’s the story. Tell him Dunk sent you,” he sent back.

I couldn’t let my new team down. Shaking like a leaf with a dying phone in my hand, I headed out of the press box and waited outside the visiting locker room. Once the doors opened, I made my way inside for my first interview of any kind. On the other side of the room, Elimimian emerged from the showers.

Wrapped in a towel, he was the image of everything a grown man should look like. I was just a boy and I barely squeaked out my introduction.

“Hello, I’m with 3DownNation. Justin Dunk sent me.”

I’m the same height as Elimimian, but he seemed like a giant. His eyes narrowed, lips snarled and he snapped back at me.

“Justin Dunk? I hate that dude!”

I’ve never come so close to an involuntary bowel movement in my life.

Then he smiled.

“Nah man, just kidding. That’s my dawg. What do you need?”

And with all the fear and anxiety now forced out of my body, I interviewed a CFL player for the very first time. It is a memory I will never forget and no matter what new experiences lay in front of me, from then on I knew nothing would ever be as terrifying as it seemed.

It was a regular day for Solomon Elimimian and it changed my life.

As Elimimian announced his retirement, I thought about that story and all the other ones shared by fans across the country. The everyday people in Vancouver and Regina who brushed shoulders with a legend and came home smiling about it.

Solomon Elimimian was as good a player as has ever suited up for the B.C. Lions and the most dominant linebacker of his generation. He’ll waltz into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot, but while his greatness will be listed in tackles and sacks, his legacy will be the memories he left fans along the way.

The CFL hasn’t seen the last of Solomon Elimimian, he’ll continue to make an impact as CFL Players’ Association president in the coming months, but here’s to everything he has already given us.

From all the lambs waiting to be lions, thank you for showing us the way.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.