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O'Leary: On-field rivals Mitchell, Reilly share a mutual respect

In the hours after a dramatic win in the Labour Day rematch against Calgary last year, Mike Reilly was ready to celebrate.

Reilly and his Esks teammates had pulled out a tough and rare win over the Stamps, avenging their Labour Day loss five days earlier. So the 2017 Most Outstanding Player left Commonwealth Stadium, went to his townhouse in downtown Edmonton and waited for the 2018 Most Outstanding Player to show up.

“Him and his wife came over to my townhouse with me and my family. We had a couple of beers and had a good evening together. It was good to have Emily (Reilly’s wife) meet his wife (Madison),” Reilly said.

His guest, of course, was Bo Levi Mitchell.

It seems odd, in that basic us-versus-them sense, to think about the quarterbacks of two rival teams slugging it out on the field then meeting after, clinking pint glasses and laughing the night away. Rivalries have taught us to expect the opposite. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird didn’t have a conversation until they’d been in the NBA six years and played against each other in the finals twice. Would Archie Andrews invite a Central High player to Pop Tate’s after a game? Bart Simpson would certainly never invite his Shelbyville doppelganger into Springfield.

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The glue to what from the outside looks to be an unlikely friendship is an agent. Both are represented by Dan Vertlieb, who has built up a stable of the league’s top quarterbacks as clients at Core Sports Group. He also represents Zach Collaros and is partnered with Trevor Harris’ agent, Paul Brown. Vertlieb also represented Travis Lulay as a player, whom Reilly grew close with as teammates at the start of his career in BC.

“We have the same agent and I have a lot of good friends that are quarterbacks around the league,” Reilly said. He made eight of 11 passes for 110 yards in the Lions’ 38-36 pre-season win on Friday and rushed for a touchdown. Mitchell was 4-for-6 for 84 yards and a touchdown. Both only played the first quarter at BC Place.

“Having Dan represent all of us together, there are a lot of times that during CFL Week or Grey Cup week, anything like that, we get together with Dan and that’s where you build those off-the-field type of things.”

Even before they really knew each other, Mitchell said, there was always a healthy respect for their on-the-field work.

“I’ve always liked Mike. My respect for somebody starts on the field and I loved the way he played the game,” he said.

“Then you meet him off the field and he’s an even better guy.”

“We both started (in the league the same way),” Reilly said. “No kids, now we both have two daughters, we’ve won Grey Cups, MOPs, things like that.

“I know the calibre player that he is and I enjoy seeing him and always pull for him. I want good things for him but I also always want to bring my best whenever I play against him because I know if I don’t we won’t come away with a win.”

The two grew closer this off-season. They were in regular contact as free agency approached, talking the day before and the morning of the market opening up on Feb. 12.

“There aren’t that many people in the world going through what you’re going through (as a free agent),” Reilly said.

“The decisions that you make don’t just affect you but your entire family for a long time into the future. That’s a lot of stress and pressure. It was nice to talk to somebody that was going through the same situation as me.

“It wasn’t just football stuff. It was just life in general and catching up.”

They chatted before the start of Friday night’s game. Mitchell told Reilly about the birth of his second daughter, Lakelyn, who is now just over a month old. Reilly, with two young daughters, Brooklyn and Cadence, had plenty of advice for him.

The dynamics of the rivalry have changed, with Reilly moving to the Lions, but the plan remains the same. Mitchell has long said that he’d love to face Reilly in a Grey Cup. A Western Final remains more likely and it’s what Reilly is hoping for almost six months from now.

“We’re always going to battle and compete multiple times a year, hopefully being the last two standing in the West. At the end of the season that’s what we always tell each other,” Reilly said.

“(Over time) you respect what they do as a professional athlete and you get to know people and their families off the field and you see them as more than just a football player.”