When quarterback Michael Reilly announced his retirement in January after 11 CFL seasons, fans and media around the league raved about the future Hall of Famer’s on-field accomplishments.
B.C. Lions offensive line coach Kelly Bates hopes that one day, we remember Reilly’s career for much greater achievements.
The native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan — where a devastating bus crash claimed the lives of 16 junior hockey players and staffers in 2018 — had just finished discussing the “indescribable” impact of the event on his hometown during an appearance on The SportsCage when the conversation flipped to Reilly’s retirement.
Without revealing details, Bates noted that the true strength of the quarterback’s character was revealed in actions fans may never hear about.
“There are things that I could tell you about Michael that he’s done off the field, for the community, in connection with the Humboldt bus crash, things that people don’t know about,” Bates said. “I hope over the years, things like that come out and we acknowledge what type of man that he was off the field.”
The veteran lineman-turned-coach provided no further details about the usually self-deprecating quarterback’s efforts in the aftermath of his hometown’s tragedy. While still a member of the Edmonton Football Team, Reilly did invite families of the affected Humboldt Broncos to a game at Commonwealth Stadium as his guests, but Bates’ comments seem to indicate his involvement went beyond that.
The pair have known each other since Reilly’s first CFL season in 2011, when Bates was freshly retired and newly into coaching. From the very start, as Reilly worked his way up the depth chart behind Travis Lulay, Bates could see he was going to be special.
“That whole first two years was a testament to who he is and really defined what he would become in our league,” he explained.
“When you go into training camp with five or six quarterbacks, he wasn’t one that was picked to even crack the top three. In fact, he was put in a situation where it was pretty much guaranteed he wasn’t going to have success in preseason and not only did he have success, but he marched the ball the length of the field, scored and cemented his way. Things like that just started to become normal for him.”
The pair were reunited when Bates served as the offensive quality control coach in Edmonton in 2018, then again a year later when he was hired to take over a beleaguered Lions’ offensive line mid-season and provide some semblance of protection for the team’s prized free agent acquisition. While Reilly’s return to B.C. ended without the success many hoped for, he never lost the admiration of his coaching staff.
“Much to the chagrin of your offensive line coach, he was a guy who would stand in there to the nth degree, waiting for that perfect pass,” Bates laughed. “He played the game fearless and I loved watching it.”
Now Bates will be in charge of the blocking schemes for second-year Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke, a player who the organization believes can match Reilly’s prowess on the field and his charitable approach off of it.
Those will both be big shoes to fill, but Bates saw all he needed to see from the youngster in the first game of the 2021 season against Saskatchewan, when the rookie was thrust into action without warning.
“If you take a young man, aged 22 and I don’t care what his nationality is, and you throw him back there and he sees 17 or 16 cover-zero blitzes to start his professional career and still doesn’t look at the rush, you’ve got something special,” Bates raved.
That was praise he once heaped on a young Reilly, though the all-time great’s legacy will always mean more off-the-field than on it.