From firefighting to football

D.W. Poppy grad Neil McKinlay leaves retirement to return to CFL

Langley's Neil McKinlay is out of retirement and back in the CFL after signing with the B.C. Lions.

Langley's Neil McKinlay is out of retirement and back in the CFL after signing with the B.C. Lions.

Neil McKinlay may have been technically retired from professional football, but he had a hunch he would be back in the game.

It became official earlier this week when the 30-year-old signed with the B.C. Lions.

The Lions were dealing with a rash of injuries, especially at the non-import position, so they inked the former Winnipeg Blue Bomber.

Following a stellar collegiate career at Simon Fraser with the Clan — he was named the Canadian Interuniversity Sport most outstanding defensive player in 2002 — the Bombers drafted the D.W. Poppy graduate in the fourth round, 33rd overall.

Prior to joining the Clan, McKinlay played community football with the Langley Minor program.

“It is good and exciting (to get back in) especially the way they have been playing,” he said to the media throng on the Lions’ practice field in Surrey following Tuesday’s practice, his first with the team.

“You never lose the itch (to play), it just sort of subsides.”

McKinlay retired following the 2009 season, after playing in 105 CFL games with the Bombers. The special teams standout and linebacker had 92 tackles in his six seasons.

With his wife and two young kids, McKinlay moved back to B.C. and now works as a firefighter for the District of North Vancouver.

With an eye to getting back in the game, he spoke with his employer at the end of August to get their blessing in case an opportunity arose.

“I put my name out there and waited for the right opportunity and this was it,” he said.

While his job requires him to be in top shape, McKinlay has been working out for the past eight weeks and he says he is right around his playing weight of 220 pounds.

“The running was the worst part,” he admitted. “It will be interesting to see Saturday night how I feel after a couple of plays.

“Saturday night will be different: the lights (at B.C. Place) will come on and the adrenalin will be flowing,” he said.

“It will be good. Sunday might be a different story.”

He was referring to the Lions big game at home against Edmonton as B.C. looks to catch the Eskimos for first place in the West Division.

McKinlay is excited as the Lions are just one game back of first place with two games remaining, both of which are at B.C. Place.

And while he has played professionally at B.C. Place in prior years, that was always as a member of the opposition, so it will be a unique feeling to pull on the jersey of the team he grew up cheering for.

“I am excited, you always want to play where you live,” he said.