If the hardest part of Lirim Hajrullahu's beginnings in Canada was language, that great jumble of English words that all sounded so much the same, he was OK with that.
Because the story of Hajrullahu's rise to become the Bombers placekicker heir apparent begins before that. Before the fateful trip on the last refugee flight to Canada. Before the Macedonia refugee camp where a young Lirim would line up for canned food and fish for his family. And before the tanks and burning houses threatened to tear his homeland apart.
It actually begins with soccer.
This was years ago, long before the kicker became Western University's all-time points and field-goal leader. Long before he wore Canada's colours on the 2011 national football team. And long before he signed on with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers earlier this year and became -- as of this week -- their place-kicking heir presumptive, a 24-year-old rookie with a chance to become a CFL star.
A lot of times, people will say 'are you nervous when you're playing in front of all those people?' No, I can't be nervous. I've had guns and tanks pointed at me'
No, this story begins in 1998, when Hajrullahu was just eight years old and his homeland Kosovo erupted in war. A year later, his parents, mom Tevide and father Nijazi, fled Kosovo with their son and two daughters in tow and found their way onto a refugee flight bound for Canada. Together, they would build a new life in the safety of Ontario -- and they would never forget what it means to leave everything behind.
"We stuck together, through the toughest times," Hajrullahu said of the journey that bonded his family forever. "We know how precious life is. We understand how fortunate we are to live in a free country, with everything going wrong in the world. We're very thankful that Canada gave us a home."
The word, "home," once described a different place. Hajrullahu grew up near Gjilan, a small industrial city near Kosovo's eastern edge. He came from an athletic family -- his father was a phys-ed professor -- and as a boy, his life spanned out on the soccer pitch. The kids of Gjilan: They played soccer at recess, they played soccer at lunch and they raced back to the field in the afternoons and played till it was dark.
Yeah, Hajrullahu said, that's partly where he learned how to kick. He always prided himself on having a hard strike, even back then.
But Kosovo was struggling, rent by the tug-of-war of force and then by violence that escalated into full-blown war. And the houses burning, and tanks rumbling down the streets -- these images still flicker back into Hajrullahu's mind, sometimes. So do the memories of the refugee camp in Macedonia, where his family sheltered in a pair of tents, and nine-year-old Lirim would wake at 5:30 a.m. to wait in line for food.
Those days would run together, and today Hajrullahu isn't sure just how long his family lived in the tents. He does know this: At some point, his family got a green light to claim refugee status in the United States. But Nijazi Hajrullahu had always dreamed of living in Canada. So when news broke that Canada would accept about 5,000 refugees, he gave up the family's U.S. spot to their cousins and made a bid to make it to the Great White North.
It was a gamble, but it paid off when the family was among the final refugees invited onto the last Canadian plane. Their life, forever changed.
They settled in St. Catharines, Ont., where Nijazi Hajrullahu took a job at a Niagara casino -- Canada didn't recognize his credentials from Sarajevo -- and young Lirim started to soak up English like a sponge. It helped all kids are fluent in kicking balls around a field -- and Lirim, he could kick. "Sports was kind of a gateway to communicate with other Canadians," he said. "So I learned English pretty quickly. It was still very difficult. But we had to."
So sports, then, proved the bridge into his new world. Hajrullahu discovered football in Grade 10, when the coach at Governor Simcoe Secondary School convinced him to try his hand (foot?) at the sport. Soon after, he booted his first extra point through the uprights, and something clicked. "The first one I made I was like, 'oh -- this is fun,'" he said. "I started loving the game."
Flash forward to where that love has brought him: When Bombers practice ended Tuesday, the media swiftly surrounded him. It was his first scrum since the team released his competition, kicker Brett Maher, who couldn't quite shine bright enough to obscure his American passport -- the cut that left Hajrullahu and veteran punter Mike Renaud the only kickers on the team.
Still, the rookie wasn't taking anything for granted. "I'm just trying to do my thing, and still compete and work hard," said Hajrullahu, who is almost finished his masters in kinesiology. "Until they tell me I've officially made it, I'm not going to slow down at all... the team isn't made for another week."
He chatted with media for a few more minutes then: About kicking under pressure, about working alongside Renaud, about his hopes to someday handle all three jobs in football that directly involve the feet. He spoke too about going undrafted, before Bombers GM Kyle Walters offered him a free-agent deal: "I'm not trying to prove anyone wrong," he said. "I'm just trying to prove to myself that I do belong here."
These are all the right answers, calmly made. One last one: On his way back to the locker-room, Hajrullahu paused to tell a radio reporter how to pronounce his last name. With a silent "j" -- like Hy-roo-la-hoo, he explained, with nary a trace of impatience at having answered this 100 times before. "I'm appreciative that people are taking the time to know it," he said later.
Anyway, he laughed, his parents get a thrill when the media get it right. It means their son is known. And they're visiting family in Kosovo this month, and watching his Bombers story unfold from afar. Watching with pride, as their son takes the next step in a story they started writing together back in 1999.
"It shaped me to be who I am today," Hajrullahu said. "A lot of times, people will say 'are you nervous when you're playing in front of all those people?' No, I can't be nervous. I've had guns and tanks pointed at me. Obviously it's a different sense, but... it's made me appreciate life a lot. It just made me appreciate Canada so much, and the opportunities we've received here for education and freedom."