EDMONTON — Growing up, Mike Reilly learned one ironclad rule at his father’s knee: real quarterbacks stay in the pocket and throw. They do not gambol about the gridiron like Bambi on a sugar rush.
So much for fatherly advice.
Twenty years later, Pat Reilly and his wife Rhonda will head north to Edmonton to watch their son Mike quarterback the Edmonton Eskimos against the Toronto Argonauts at Commonwealth Stadium Saturday.
They’ll watch a 28-year-old who has become a local folk hero for his willingness to run, throw, and take hellacious hits to lift the 3-9 team off the mat.
“I’ve made peace with it (the running),” Pat Reilly laughed in an interview from the family home in Kalispell, Mont. “But I’d still trade running yards for passing yards any day of the week.”
Mike Reilly’s running has made him a potent double threat. He is ranked second in league passing with 3,085 yards and 20 TDs, and is fifth amongst all the league’s rushers with 530 yards.
After years of bouncing around practice rosters in the NFL and backing up Travis Lulay in B.C., Reilly got his chance to lead a team this past off-season when he was acquired in a trade by the Eskimos.
He has more than exceeded expectations.
The Eskimos are on a two-game win streak after starting the season 1-9 and, given the wacky world of the CFL, are still in the hunt for a cross-over playoff spot.
Paradoxically, before the win streak, Reilly’s legend grew with each successive loss as fans marvelled at his ability to drag himself to his feet after getting destroyed by a defensive end.
But ask Reilly about the hits and his eyes glaze over.
“That’s how I’ve always looked at football. It’s a man’s game. There’s no room here for people that are soft,” he said in an interview.
It was his dad, he said, who not only worked all day then drove him to practice at night and coached his football team, but taught him the difference between pain and injury.
“(He taught me to) get up every single play. No matter how hard I got hit,” said Reilly.
“My dad didn’t want to hear it. He’s old school. He wasn’t going to let me come out of a game just because something hurt.”
Pat said he knew Mike was something special in high school in Kennewick, Wash. In Mike’s Grade 11 year, he was the team’s entire offence: the quarterback, punter and placekicker.
But in one game, with a playoff berth on the line, Mike was in such severe pain with a high-ankle sprain be could barely walk.
So they worked out a plan. During the game Mike took the snaps, threw and kicked as best he could, then, when the defence took over, hobbled over to the training room, lay down and kept his head out the door to watch the game while trainers worked on his ankle with ultrasound.
When it was time for the offence, he’d put on his shoe, hobble over and get back to work.
“He is without a doubt of all the kids I’ve ever coached the toughest kid I’ve ever seen,” said Pat.
Young Mike, he said, was a boy in constant motion. His room was covered in posters and pictures of his hero, legendary Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, but the boy was rarely around long enough to enjoy them.
Mike started out with a paper route but by age eight he was running his own lawn mowing service, complete with business cards, said Pat. A year later, he’d expanded into snow clearing. After that it was a sports trading card business.
After school it was always sports: baseball, basketball, football.
He was an excellent student, a math geek who would stay up all night if necessary to work out a thorny question.
His SAT scores were off the charts and he graduated with a 4.0 GPA at Central Washington University, leaving with a degree in mechanical engineering. Ivy League schools were chomping to sign the egghead kid with the rocket arm.
It’s an arm that looks more like a rocket launcher than a catapult.
Pat says that is a result of Mike’s days as a catcher in baseball, when it was all about the quick release to get the ball to second base to nab a would-be base stealer.
Watch Mike today, he said, and you’ll see he brings the ball up to his ear and let’s fly, rather than bringing the arm back.
Mike wasn’t a running quarterback in high school, but became one in college. He wasn’t running to daylight. He was running for his life.
“We had an all-freshman offensive line that had never played at the college level, so out of necessity I learned really fast I could get out of the pocket and make things happen,” said Mike.
As the line improved, Mike continued to run more as a weapon and less out of desperation.
“That’s where I learned I had the ability (to run). I found out the hard way.”
Pat said Mike has always been able to think the game and recall the minutest details of every play.
“He’ll tell you what the receivers ran all the way down to the pressure that was coming and what he did wrong or what he did right,” he said.
“And he would go through pretty much the whole game.”
Reilly’s current head coach, Kavis Reed, agrees.
Reed said as the season has progressed Reilly has taken a more active role in play calling and game planning.
Between games, Reed said, Reilly is constantly knocking at the coaches’ door, suggesting plays or bouncing ideas. On road trips he pinballs among the receivers on the airplane, talking strategy.
“I (finally) told him: ’Don’t text me (with play suggestions) after 10 o’clock,” Reed laughed. “He’s always thinking football. I don’t think he has a social life.”
For all the pounding Mike has taken, Pat Reilly said he’s never seen his son take a major season-ending, writhing-on-the-field type injury.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t tense moments when Mom and Dad watch Mike on TV and he takes a body-bending helmet to the sternum.
When that happens Rhonda will yell “Michael!” at the TV set. It’s a cry that is half-concern and half-rebuke.
“What is Mike supposed to do?” Pat will say to her. Sometimes you have to sit in the pocket to take the hit.
“She struggles with that. And that’s being a mom,” said Pat.
Pat said he respects and accepts Mike taking a hard hit from a good player, but admits, “When the day comes I don’t see him get up it’s probably going to hit me pretty hard.”
Mike does have one visible injury, a slight bend to his nose. Pat said that came in childhood when a buddy errantly swung a 9-iron and drilled Mike in the beak, leaving blood, stitches and bent cartilage.
That just adds to the curious legend of Mike Reilly: the man who, to paraphrase the movie “North Dallas Forty,” has left pieces of himself on football fields from here to Pittsburgh.
And the one lasting injury he gets?