There’s a photo of Lirim Hajrullahu taken in the celebratory aftermath of last November’s Grey Cup. The trophy is lifted triumphantly over his head, inches above his Toronto Argonauts’ championship hat, and the look on his face is a priceless mix of shock and happiness.
After all, he had just kicked the championship-winning field goal in the snow in Ottawa.
But there’s something deeper there, too, something goes beyond football and into Hajrullahu’s remarkable origin story. The photo chronicles the end to a remarkable journey.
“When that moment came, it just felt like every kick and everything that I’ve experienced, just came to fruition in that moment. That realization that I did it, that we did it together,” the new Hamilton Tiger-Cat says, when asked to explain. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life, especially given everything my family and I have been through.”
The Hajrullahus have been through a lot. Born in Kosovo, Lirim and the family fled the region when he was nine-year-old as Serbian forces attacked their town. More than a million ethnic Albanians were driven from the country and 11,000 were killed and the family ended up in a refugee camp in Macedonia.
“As we were leaving our town, there were tanks coming in and blowing up houses. It was mayhem … I do still think about. When times get hard, I think it’s important to remember where I came from,” he says now. “We lived in a tent with nine people in it but we had to do what we had to do to stay safe.
“We were just happy to be alive at that point.”
The family bypassed a chance to immigrate to the U.S. and opted for Canada instead, ultimately settling in the St. Catharines area. Lirim played soccer at first, using sports as a social tool as he learned the language and customs, then gradually shifted his focus to football.
He played his university football at Western, he came agonizingly close to winning a Vanier Cup, before landing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as a largely undrafted free agent. He’s worked diligently at his craft and is now considered one of the best all-around kickers in the game, a guy who can do all three jobs with a Canadian passport in his pocket.
Hajrullahu attributes much of that success to Hamilton-based kicking coach Ken Urquhart, who he has worked with since his high school days. Hajrullahu has maintained the relationship through the years, flying home on the bye weeks from Winnipeg to work with him and driving down from Toronto through much of last season.
This article was originally published here: