YAKIMA, Wash. -- Ever since walking off the field after Central Washington’s first-round playoff loss at West Texas A&M in 2008, Mike Reilly has been waiting.
Waiting for the same opportunity he sought by asking Bill Doba to release him from his scholarship at Washington State in 2004.
Waiting for the same opportunity he found in Ellensburg when John Zamberlin named Reilly the Wildcats starter in 2005.
And now, as Canadian Football League teams look toward for the 2013 season, Reilly is no longer waiting. He has found what he’s looking for, or rather it has found him.
A Jan. 31 trade to the Edmonton Eskimos from the BC Lions will very likely have the same impact for the 6-foot-3, 215-pound quarterback that his arrival at Central eight years ago had.
“No one has told me I’m the starter, which is fine,” Reilly said in a recent telephone interview. “That’s the way I want it. I’d prefer to earn the job and not have it handed to me.
“But at least I’m getting what I’ve been looking for. I’m getting an opportunity.”
As he did at Central, and it was one Reilly made the most of.
He started every CWU game for four years, and became the first NCAA player in any division to do so while also throwing at least one touchdown pass in each outing.
He threw for 118 TDs overall and, as a senior, was a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the NCAA Division II equivalent of the Heisman.
Hoping to catch on with an NFL team, Reilly was a member of several taxi squads in 2009, and was briefly on the Seahawks roster. But nothing panned out, so Reilly went north to the Lions and for three seasons served as backup to standout Travis Lulay, a former Montana State star.
Last year, though he’d been impressive in the Lions’ two preseason games, Reilly hadn’t been allowed to show much until a late-season injury to Lulay. He started three straight games — the first being a 39-19 win over Edmonton in which Reilly was 19 of 28 for 276 yards and two scores with one interception.
Suffice it to say, Reilly’s performance caught the eye of Edmonton general manager Ed Hervey. And given the quarterback’s athleticism that’s well-suited for the wide-open Canadian game, Hervey noticed more than the numbers.
Hence the trade, which Hervey made to avoid a bidding war for Reilly who was due to become a free agent on earlier this month.
Of course, a Canadian bidding war could be considered a mere skirmish compared with the NFL. While the average CFL salary in 2011 was $82,500, the average NFL QB stipend is reportedly $1,970,982.
That said, Edmonton has a long and illustrious CFL history (13 championships) and also the league’s largest venue (Commonwealth Stadium, capacity 63,00).
Also, Edmonton is a larger city than Vancouver, British Columbia, home to the Lions, and is the northernmost North American metropolis of more than one million. It also was home to the world’s largest mall (West Edmonton Mall) from 1981 until 2004.
But amenities aside, the most valuable commodity Edmonton offers Reilly is the chance to be a starting professional quarterback.
And when you consider Hervey’s post-trade remarks, and the new contract that was signed soon after the trade, the clear impression is that the job is Reilly’s to lose.
“Mike has the chance to be an elite quarterback in this league,” Hervey said. “This is a step toward stabilizing our quarterback position.”
To become No. 1 for the Esks, as they are called locally, Reilly must win competition against former Eastern Washington standout Matt Nichols, among others. Nichols is rehabbing a broken leg and dislocated ankle sustained in Edmonton’s playoff loss to Toronto last November, injuries not unlike those sustained last fall by Eisenhower High standout Kolney Cassel.
“Sure, I’d have preferred being the starter at BC, but Travis was the guy there and that’s the way it was,” Reilly said. “He won a championship for them. I’m grateful to the Lions for giving me a chance to learn, to learn the Canadian game and to showcase my ability. I developed some really good friendships there.
“But now, I’m extremely excited. To have a chance to truly compete for a starting job, with a new team in a new city, is all I could ever ask. It’s how I’ve always been. All I’ve ever asked for is a chance.”
Reilly has been resting up and working out in Kalispell, Mont., where his parents live and where he spent his senior year of high school after three seasons at Kamiakin.
He is no longer with his wife, Jessica, and that development — while difficult — Reilly has accepted as part of life’s process.
“Sometimes you have to do what’s best for everyone in the long run, even if it’s painful at the time,” he said.
Reilly’s family, which he helps by working on renovations to their home, has been an invaluable source of support, as has his dog Rocco, a 130-pound Rottweiler he adopted as a sophomore at Central.
And Reilly still has his razor-sharp wit.
At his introductory news conference in Edmonton, a reporter confused his new team with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, prompting Reilly to respond, “When the Oilers tried to get me I was surprised, because I can’t skate.”
So if the Edmonton thing works out, might the 28-year-old Reilly seek another shot at the NFL? Warren Moon won five Grey Cups with the Eskimos, after all, before hitting it big with the Houston Oilers.
“You know what, I don’t really think I’m going to explore that option anytime soon,” he said. “Who knows what might happen if some scenario develops that presents me with an unusual opportunity. But the CFL is a great league with a very high and competitive level of football. And right now it offers everything I want.”
Meaning it’s offering him all he’s ever asked for — a chance.
Roger Underwood’s blog Under The Radar is at www.yakimaherald.com/blogs/undertheradar/ He can be reached at 509-577-7694 or firstname.lastname@example.org