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Neil McKinlay

VANCOUVER — Neil McKinlay, Langley kid, SFU product and current BC Lions’ special teamer, could be one of the luckiest Grey Cup winners in CFL history on Sunday.

And then he could well be cleaning out toilets at the North Vancouver fire hall on Tuesday as one of the lowest on the hall’s seniority list.

You want perspective, the married father of two little girls can give it to you.

McKinlay, a six-year member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Lions’ opponent in Sunday’s title game, walked away from football at age 28 after the 2009 season with an option year left on his contract.

The girls were just three and one then, and he didn’t want to be bouncing them around the country. Plus, he had a great opportunity to follow in his dad’s big rubber boots and become a firefighter.

“We grew up in a fire hall, with Christmas parties and everything,” he said Thursday after chowing down at a Lions media availability luncheon.

“He was able to coach soccer and stuff like that. The fire hall really lends itself to family life. And it’s as close to the football environment that you’re going to get — guys working together towards a common goal. It’s a really good job for me.”

But late this summer, he began to miss football, missed the personalities, the camaraderie and the locker-room hijinks. He was itching to play again and decided to put his name out there.

Calgary checked in and he had a brief discussion with Winnipeg.

But when B.C. ran into injury problems with its Canadian depth and gave him a call, he jumped at the chance.

“It’s like Christmas come early,” says McKinlay of the fortuitous timing.

“ I really wanted to play here in front of family and friends. I got word from my agent while I was in Winnipeg visiting family. I was like, ‘I’m in. When can I book my ticket out of here.’”

Dean Valli, a Lions’ guard also out of SFU, says McKinlay is a strong special teams player.

“Good for him, He came in at the right time. And he’s got to go to work, put in an all-nighter at the fire hall. That’s not easy, not during Grey Cup week, let alone during the regular season.”

McKinlay, who lost a Grey Cup with Winnipeg in 2007, says he came back with one goal, to win a championship.

The six-foot, 220-pound linebacker played the final two regular-season games and the West Final for the Lions.

“It was so cool putting on the jersey the first time. As a kid, you grow up watching the B.C. Lions and all the greats — Lui Passaglia, Sean Millington. And it’s neat to be giving my girls that experience of seeing me play, running around in their Lions jerseys.”

McKinlay says he was quickly accepted in the Lions’ locker-room, but admits it has been a weird experience given that he’s never been one to start something halfway through.

“You feel guilty to a point, at least I do, because you come in with two games left and you just kind of slide in. You feel like you could be taking somebody else’s opportunity away. But it is a business and you go from there.”

The first game back, he says, was tough. It took him more than a quarter to get used to the speed of play again.

And while he’s been steady, he’s still waiting to make that one big, momentum-turning play. After working a 14-hour overnight shift in the fire hall on Thursday, he got four days off and began visualizing making an impact on Sunday.

“Any kind of big play that helps this team out, whether it’s making a block for Tim [Brown] to run 80 yards on a punt return, or forcing a fumble that gives us good field position — just doing the role you’re asked to do.”

The fact Winnipeg provides the opposition on Sunday will make the game even more special, says McKinlay.

“A lot of my buddies are still on the team and they’ve gone through some rough years. I’m glad to see them have a successful year this year. They deserve to be here.”

McKinlay says he was able to get six tickets to the game — one for his wife, a couple for his parents and the others for some friends.

“It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.”

He says he’s not certain what the future holds. He’ll see what plans the Lions might have for him, but, “I’m perfectly all right if it’s my last game ever.”

“You just go on living life, running around chasing kids and going to work.”

Source : The Vancouver Sun

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