Golden Guy: Michael Reilly’s incredible CFL career leaves us wishing we had more

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

When legendary comedic actress Betty White passed away last month, just weeks shy of her 100th birthday, it was hard not to marvel at how much she accomplished even after living to such a ripe old age.

Michael Reilly’s tongue-in-cheek sarcasm was always more Dorothy Zbornak than Rose Nylund — and only Blanche Devereaux could have pulled off some of his hats — but after the B.C. Lions’ quarterback announced his retirement from the CFL on Monday, I’m struck with a similar feeling.

There is no question that Reilly will walk into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at the earliest opportunity. He was the league’s passing yards leader four times, a Grey Cup champion and a Most Outstanding Player, finishing his career 14th on the CFL’s all-time yardage list. Yet it still seems like we were cruelly denied more greatness.

In an era where legendary quarterbacks seem to routinely play into their forties, Reilly logged his last season at just 36. When you factor in the three seasons he spent as a backup behind Travis Lulay and subtract a season lost to COVID, you are faced with the reality that we witnessed just eight years of Reilly as a professional starter.

Of all the players ahead of him on the all-time list, only Doug Flutie can claim to have played so briefly, but that is where the comparisons end.

At various times in his iconic CFL career, Flutie was called a “self-centered, arrogant S.O.B.” and “a wimp with a bad attitude” by opponents and teammates alike. You will hear no such things about Reilly.

Whether he likes it or not, the 2017 Most Outstanding Player’s legacy in the eyes of fans won’t be the awards on his shelf or the rings on his fingers. It won’t even be a highlight reel of the big-time throws he made to a laundry list of all-star receivers that he helped propel to stints in the NFL. It will always be the hits.

The images of Reilly burned into our minds aren’t pretty ones. They’re him laying on his back, crushed beneath a pile. It’s him doubled over from a shot to the ribs, barely able to stand. It’s him with a helmet being drilled beneath his chin or bent at an odd angle cartwheeling through the air.

Most importantly, the image we’ll be left with is the grimace on his face as he picked himself back up again.

No doubt the fact that he spent the better part of a decade as the undisputed toughest player in the CFL is a major reason why his career feels painfully short, but Michael Reilly wasn’t going to do it any other way. Even as hits started to take more of a visible toll and commentators begged him to adjust, he was uncompromising. It is what made him great.

Reilly played quarterback like a battlefield commander in a Hollywood blockbuster, with the type of sacrificial selflessness that rarely exists in real life. To be the face of a franchise was an honour and a privilege to him, one he long ago decided he would pay back with every ounce of blood and guts he had in his body.

In a modern world that is grappling with the meaning of masculinity, that type of macho toughness can be seen by some as regressive. Reilly never made it so.

As a leader, he was firm and demanding, but remarkably empathetic to what his teammates needed in the moment, even when he was the one paying the price. The thought of letting the blame fall anywhere other than his own shoulders after a loss was entirely foreign and as a result, their trust in him was implicit. Every week was a masterclass in leadership.

Off the field, he may have even been more impressive. With a dry wit and dead pan delivery, he could seemingly break down the walls of even the most grizzled reporter without breaking a sweat. He had a rapport with everybody, but when it came time to answer questions, he was nothing less than honest.

If your question was stupid or your take was off-base, Reilly wasted no time telling you. But then he would spend five minutes explaining in great detail what he thought on that particular subject, providing you with a great quote for your trouble every single time. He may have disagreed with you, but he never made you feel like an idiot.

As much as his toughness, it was Reilly’s originality, compassion and at times vulnerability that made him great. His decision to go public in 2019 with his battle with anxiety and panic attacks was perhaps the greatest single act of leadership we’ll ever see from a CFL quarterback.

For millions of people across this country struggling with mental health issues, the fact that the toughest guy in the toughest sport known to man was in that battle with them lifted an untold burden. His openness and honesty was a massive step forward towards removing the stigma of mental illness. It should be remembered as the defining example of the quarterback putting himself on the line so that others could flourish.

The way that 2021 ended, we all knew that Reilly’s career was coming to a close and that he was able to do it on his own terms after leading the league in passing for a final time is a small mercy. His arm was never quite right and the annual pounding seemed to sap more strength from him than usual.

When I tell my kids about covering Michael Reilly one day, the story I tell won’t be him desperately reaching to convert a third down and coming up short to finish a seven-game losing streak. One of the greatest quarterbacks in CFL history deserved better than to have that be our last memory of him on the field.

I’ll tell them about his character and his leadership, about how I badgered him about his offensive line play and he gave them nothing but credit as he held icepacks to his bruises. I’ll tell them about being decked out in green and gold and sitting beside my dad as he lifted the Grey Cup, still standing despite a braced knee and a shot from Moton Hopkins I didn’t think he’d get up from. But most importantly, I’ll show them a game.

It won’t be his championship or his greatest game ever, but rather a meaningless 16-15 win over the Toronto Argonauts in Week 5 of 2018. All these years later, I went back and watched that game last night, one of a handful where Reilly is wearing a live mic, to remind myself why I saved it. The answer was obvious.

In a forgettable game in poor conditions, Reilly put together teach tape for how to lead a team, managing every aspect of his offence and seemingly telling each player exactly what they needed to hear after a mistake. Never berating, simply correcting and tapping them on the helmet to let them know he believed in them.

I saved that game to one day show the kids I coach what leadership looks like. I saved it to remind myself what leadership is.

Were this a just world, we would have seen many more seasons of Reilly in his prime, but what we got will have to be enough.

I think I speak for everyone in the CFL community when I say this: Michael Reilly, thank you for being a friend.

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.