On Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, Lirim Hajrullahu, MBA’17, experienced a moment of déjà vu. He was standing 32 yards away from the goal posts at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, Ontario, with 49 seconds left in the Canadian Football League’s 105th Grey Cup match against the Calgary Stampeders. Seven years earlier, he had stood in nearly the same place on that same field during the Yates Cup National Semi-Finals game, when his last-second field goal earned the Western University Mustangs a place in the finals.
“To me, it seemed as if this had happened before,” he said, “so I knew as long as I could get a good snap and hold on a cold and snowy day, I would make the field goal because I had played that action in my head many times before.”
His mental preparation served him well— Hajrullahu’s field goal earned the underdog Toronto Argonauts a 27-24 victory over the Calgary Stampeders.
It was just the latest highlight in his football career, which includes being named West Division Special Teams Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Canadian Player of the Year with both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Toronto Argonauts. He was also named Rookie of the Year for Winnipeg and broke the rookie field goal percentage record, with 87 percent.
Not bad for someone who took to football because “soccer wasn’t very popular in Canada and I did not know how to skate,” Hajrullahu says.
Hajrullahu came to Canada when he was 8 years old, after fleeing Kosovo, Serbia, with his parents and two sisters. He still has vivid memories of the moment he was forced from his home, of the snipers surrounding his village, and of the soldiers walking the streets with AK-47s.
“Fortunately, we were able to leave unharmed,” he said, “but I can still remember being stuffed in a car with nine relatives when the Serbian tanks were rolling on the opposite side of the street, burning houses down.”
Hajrullahu and his family initially found refuge in Macedonia before coming to St. Catharines, Ontario, where four of Hajrullahu’s great-uncles lived. He discovered football while attending Governor Simcoe Secondary School and fell in love with the game. He was recruited to the Western University Mustangs, where he had a five-year career, became the all-time leading scorer in the CIS with 422 points, and holds the record for most career field goals, with 72. He also completed undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in kinesiology with a specialization in sports management while at the university.
After two years with Winnipeg, Hajrullahu signed with the Argos as a free agent in 2016, the same year he began studies in Niagara University’s MBA program to give him “a strong academic base that I can use to begin my career off the field.” Ideally, that career will be as a college professor or an athletic director. Entrepreneurship may be in his future, as well.
But for now, football continues to be his passion. He says he wants to be the best kicker he can be because of the joy it brings to his team.
“It’s something you strive for every day,” he says. “I like to see people happy.”