Quarterback Travis Lulay is the pride of the B.C. Lions
Travis Lulay readily admits he didn’t dream of playing in or winning a Grey Cup while he was a youngster growing up on the playing fields of Aumsville, Oregon. However, the B.C. Lions quarterback claims to have watched a few Canadian Football League championship games on television as a kid. So the Grey Cup was at least on his radar screen—and now it’s within his reach.
Lulay has come a long way as a player, a leader, and a rising star on this side of the border in a relatively short time. With pinpoint passing, an underrated ability to move his feet, and confidence that has been growing for months now, the 28-year-old has an opportunity to cap a remarkable season with a win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 99th Grey Cup championship on Sunday (November 27).
After a solid college career at Montana State and stints in the National Football League and NFL Europe, Lulay made his way to the Lions den in 2009 as a free agent. And in just his third season in the league—but his first full campaign as a starter—Lulay has emerged as an all-star and is the West Division finalist for the CFL’s outstanding-player award.
Although the individual accolades are appreciated, the easygoing gunslinger can’t wait for the opportunity to showcase his skills on the biggest stage the CFL has to offer and to lead his team into battle in a championship game for the first time in his pro career.
“This is where I’m at now, and this is the pinnacle of what we do in this league: getting the opportunity to play in the Grey Cup game,” Lulay tells the Georgia Straight on the field at B.C. Place Stadium moments after shredding the Edmonton Eskimos for 293 passing yards and another 63 yards on the ground in a convincing 40-23 victory in the West final. “I was familiar with it.I knew about it. I’d watched Grey Cups before as a kid. We lived in the country, but we had satellite and caught the occasional game. This is the peak of what we do, and to have the opportunity to play in a game like this is exciting.”
Lulay and the Lions have put together one of the most memorable seasons in the long and storied history of Canadian football. From the darkness of an 0-5 start, they have emerged as a powerhouse, rattling off wins in 11 of their last 12 games. It is a journey unlike anything else Lulay has been a part of in his career.
And although he is well aware it’s hardly the conventional way to win a championship, Lulay insists he hasn’t spent much time trying to figure out what went wrong in this year’s early stages or how the Lions managed to turn things around. He just knew that his season-opening play wasn’t good enough and that for the team to do what had to be done, he had to be a big part of the solution.
“I’ll give you a better answer after the season, when I have time to look back,” he says when asked about his role in the team’s transformation. “Honestly, I’ve done a decent job in the second half of the season of not turning the ball over very often. Anytime you’re not turning the ball over you’re giving yourself a chance to win. I’ve been able to make more plays with my legs in the second half of the season, which helps in terms of avoiding the pass rush. So those are probably the two areas where I think I’ve done a decent job.”
No one associated with the Lions will disagree with the quarterback’s assessment. Ball possession has been crucial, and so has Lulay’s ability to scramble, as he demonstrated by setting a franchise playoff record with a 61-yard touchdown scamper against the Eskimos in the fourth quarter.
But ask any of his teammates or his coaches where Lulay has truly become a difference maker for the football team and they’ll quickly tell you it’s his leadership. Lulay has developed a command of the huddle and has become a true field general, picking apart defences and marching to the end zone seemingly at will over the second half of the season.
“That’s something I’ve always prided myself on, and not just because I play quarterback but because that’s my mentality,” he says. “I want to be that guy that other guys can look to in the huddle and believe in me. Being able to remain that guy through the adversity of losing those games early in the year and coming out on top: I think over time you command respect that way, and I feel that’s a positive.”
Wally Buono has been coaching football longer than Lulay has been alive. And over those many years, the Lions’ coach and general manager has seen virtually all there is to see in the Canadian Football League. He’s also had a knack for finding and developing quarterbacks like Jeff Garcia, Henry Burris, Dave Dickenson, and Casey Printers.
Buono has also had to deal with the ups and downs all signal callers go through, although there have been far more peaks than valleys with Lulay. And as much as he’s been impressed with his quarterback’s performance this season, Buono has far more respect for the person than the player.
“One of his great qualities is that he’s a tremendous human being,” Buono says. “Obviously, he’s got smarts, is a good athlete, makes good decisions, but you could say that his character and his persona is more than all of his athleticism. And I think people don’t appreciate sometimes how he can capture the moment, and I think a lot of that is because of who he is as a human being. When people have success, it’s amazing how change starts to happen. Travis Lulay has had a lot of success, but you don’t see any change in his personality or his temperament or his demeanour.”
Much of that has to do with Lulay’s upbringing in a tight-knit family in a small town in northwest Oregon, just south of Portland. With a population of 3,500, Aumsville’s claim to fame to this point has been the town’s annual corn festival each August. But that has likely changed to being the hometown of a shooting star in the CFL.
Lulay may not get home as often as he’d like since he and his wife, Kimberley, now spend their off-seasons in Bozeman, Montana, but since he can’t get to Aumsville often during the football season, the comforts of home come to him. Showing the same commitment and dedication that Lulay himself shows to football, his biggest fans—parents Dennis and Loni—make the trek to Lions home games as often as possible and will be in the stands to see their son compete in the biggest game of his career.
“It means a lot, because they’ve always been huge supporters of me and I’ve always been blessed that way to have such a huge support system,” Lulay says. “And I’m very lucky to be in Vancouver and relatively close to home in Oregon. It’s about a five-and-a-half-hour drive when they time it right and don’t hit traffic in Portland or Seattle. My parents have been that way since I left home for college. They came to most of my games at Montana State, so this is easy getting up here to Vancouver. So they take advantage of it.”
With the support of family and the help of teammates, Lulay has delivered one of the best seasons in recent memory from a B.C. Lions quarterback, throwing for 4,815 yards and 32 touchdowns. The passing yardage was the second-highest total in the CFL this season, while the touchdown total tied for the league lead.
In both categories, Lulay measured up to Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo, one of the all-time greats in the league and the man he’s up against for the outstanding-player honour. It’s heady company, but it also speaks volumes about the heights to which Lulay has rapidly ascended.
“That was not a goal I wrote down at the start of the year, because there are a lot of things that are out of your control that go into those awards,” Lulay says of being singled out for the CFL’s highest individual honour. “I just wanted to focus on the progression and to get better every single week rather than writing down all the things I need to be. That can be a little bit overwhelming. I’ve found in the past that I’ve been that way—writing down that I want to do this and this and this—and then it becomes too much, instead of just playing within yourself and working at continuing to improve on all those little things that will make you better.
“Continuing to improve is really where my focus has been. You take care of the little things and the big things start to happen. And the MOP nomination is really a reflection of the entire team. It really is. It’s an honour to be recognized, but it’s a good thing for the whole football team, and it reflects the hard work everyone has put into this season.”
And in the eyes of his coach, no one has worked harder this season than Lulay.
“It’s like anything in professional sports: you have to improve,” Buono says of the growth that comes with maturity and on-the-job training. “His skill has improved; his vision has improved. So it has made him a better quarterback. The thing that all great athletes have is that the game slows down for them. With experience, things on the field are slower for you and [it’s] easier to see what you need to see, and your confidence is higher. A lot of what Travis does is based on his vision and his ability to anticipate what receivers are going to do and what the defences are going to do. And he’s much better at that now than he was at the start of the season.”
Putting together everything he’s learned over the course of a mercurial season, Lulay has been at his best when the Lions have needed it the most. And that has allowed him to guide his team to the title game.
Self-assured but without a hint of arrogance, Lulay gives every indication he is poised and ready to put the final piece of the championship puzzle in place with one more starring performance. Although his path to CFL stardom appears to have been fast-tracked over the past few months, this season has taught Lulay there is no shortcut to success.
“At this point, we’re not sneaking up on anybody,” he says as he prepares to face a Winnipeg team the Lions haven’t beaten in two tries this year. “We’ve played well in the second half of the season, and we know what it takes to win now, and that’s earning every single win on game day. We’ve got to ramp it up another notch, but we know when we play 60 minutes of football, we are a tough team to beat.”
At 0-5, no one gave the B.C. Lions much of a chance, and at other times in his career, Lulay wasn’t given much of an opportunity either.
But none of that matters now. Both player and team have overcome obstacles and together have put themselves in position to carve their place in CFL history by becoming Grey Cup champions.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.