Canadian kicker Hajrullahu has NFL dreams on hold amid COVID-19 outbreak

Hamilton Tiger-Cats Lirim Hajrullahu reacts following the team's loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL Grey Cup in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Canadian kicker Lirim Hajrullahu to put his NFL aspirations on hold.

Earlier this month, the former Hamilton Tiger-Cats kicker participated in a free-agent camp put on by Greg Zauner, a former NFL special-teams coach and kicking consultant. Hajrullahu performed well enough to garner interest from upwards of five clubs.

Trouble is, NFL facilities remain closed and travel restrictions are in place because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. So the Oakville, Ont., resident has no choice but to remain patient, continue working out and stay ready.

“Like anybody else, I’d love to get this thing resolved and back to normal but these things take time,” Hajrullahu said. “We’re trying to give the health-care community as much time as we can and not overcrowd hospitals.

“We have to stay at home and try to follow as many of the rules as possible to stay safe. I’m remaining patient and ready and trying doing as much regular stuff as I can.”

Hajrullahu isn’t the only football player being affected by the outbreak.

Defensive lineman Neville Gallimore (Oklahoma, NCAA) and receiver Chase Claypool (Notre Dame, NCAA) _ two highly-regarded Canadian prospects for this year’s NFL draft who performed admirably at the league’s combine _ both can’t go to team visits leading up to April 23-25 draft. North of the border, the University of Alberta cancelled its pro day scheduled for Thursday after eight NFL teams and all nine CFL squads had committed to attending with towering six-foot-six, 315-pound tackle Carter O’Donnell among those to work out.

The five-foot-11, 205-pound Hajrullahu has spent six seasons in the CFL, his last two in Hamilton handling all three kicking duties (punts, kickoffs, field goals). Last year, the former Western Mustangs star hit 47-of-55 field goals (85.5 per cent) while posting a 43.1-yard punting average as the Ticats posted a league-best 15-3 record and established a single-season club record for regular-season victories.

Hamilton’s record-setting campaign ended with a 33-12 loss to Winnipeg in the Grey Cup. But the Ticats have wasted no time reloading this off-season, extending such veterans as safety Tunde Adeleke, defensive linemen Ja’Gared Davis, Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli while adding receiver DeVier Posey, running back Don Jackson and linebacker Larry Dean in free agency.

Hamilton released Hajrullahu early to allow him to pursue NFL opportunities. If nothing pans out south of the border, Hajrullahu said the Ticats will be the first CFL squad he’ll approach.

“Hamilton did me a favour by releasing me,” Hajrullahu said. “The moves they’ve made speaks volumes that guys want to play there and believe in (head coach Orlondo Steinauer’s) vision.”

Over his CFL career _ he also has been with Winnipeg (2014-15) and Toronto (2016-17) _ Hajrullahu has hit 239-of-287 field goals (83.3 per cent) while sporting a 44.1-yard punting average. A two-time East Division all-star, Hajrullahu earned a Grey Cup ring in 2017 with the Argonauts.

But for now, Hajrullahu is intent on playing the waiting game. And he’s not the least bitter or discouraged by the hand he’s been dealt by the novel coronavirus.

“These things happen and it’s nothing I can control,” he said. “It’s like me kicking in a game where the winds are 60 kilometres an hour and yesterday it was 10 kilometres an hour.

“The No. 1 thing right now is having everyone stay safe and following the necessary protocol.”

Hajrullahu said his performance at the free-agent camp further buoyed his confidence that he can play in the NFL.

“One hundred per cent,” he said. “Some of the coaches there were shocked and asked, ‘Where have you been the last six years?’

“I went, ‘Hey, I’ve been here.’ I think maturity and experience have really helped me get to where I am today.”

But the pandemic has forced Hajrullahu to adjust his off-season training.

“I still want to keep kicking and all the indoor facilities are closed so I have go outdoors,” he said. “I have to see what the weather holds.

“(On Thursday), it was nice and (Friday) it was supposed to be warm but really windy. I kicked yesterday and expect to today to take advantage of the weather even though I think it’s supposed to be 40-50 kilometre winds.”

Hajrullahu also works out at home with routines he receives digitally from his trainer in London, Ont.

“I have some equipment that I can utilize and still stay fit and healthy,” he said. “The other day my wife and I went to a field and just did some running, sprints and bandwork.

“It’s still staying isolated but if we can get outside, we will to get as much activity as possible to stay in shape.”

At age 29, Hajrullahu said he’s just hitting his prime. He said an example of that is Winnipeg’s Justin Medlock, 36, who has become one of the league’s top special-teams players since returning full-time to the CFL in 2014 after tryouts with six NFL teams.

Over nine CFL seasons with three teams, Medlock has made 377-of-436 field goals (86.5 per cent) and sports a 42.8-yard punting average. He was named the league’s top special-teams player in 2016 and in Winnipeg’s Grey Cup win booted a record-tying six field goals.

“Once he hit his prime, he’s just steady because he’s been through it all,” Hajrullahu said.

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