Central Washington standouts finding success in CFL

YAKIMA — Beau Baldwin, who had seen some truly remarkable things on a football field, could hardly believe his eyes.

Heck, he had done some truly remarkable things on a football field, and still was aghast.

But on Sept. 11, 2010 at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, Central Washington linebacker Adam Bighill, standing perhaps 10 feet from Eastern Washington quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, leaped and intercepted Mitchell’s swing pass and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown.

Baldwin’s Eagles won the war, 35-32 on their way to an FCS national championship, but the third-year EWU head coach was more than a little impressed with the Montesano product’s triumph in the aforementioned battle.

“Nobody intercepts that ball,” an incredulous Baldwin said afterward. “That’s a play where you maybe get up in the air and knock it down, but nobody does what he did. Nobody makes that a pick six.”

On Oct. 21, 2006, another Central standout had done something extraordinary on the very same turf.

Against archrival Western Washington, the Wildcats had seen an early 14-0 lead evaporate and trailed 21-20 midway through the third quarter.

On third and 13 from his own 32 yard line, CWU quarterback Mike Reilly was flushed from the pocket and ran toward his right sideline to elude a defender. Just before reaching the boundary, and while running at full speed, Reilly threw a pass far downfield that a backpedaling Johnny Spevak caught while falling down at the Viking 16.

The gain was 52 yards.

Two plays later, Reilly hit Josh Boonstra for an 11-yard touchdown, and Central stormed to a 42-28 victory.

Back then, CenturyLink was known as Qwest Field, and then as now was home to the Seahawks. And aside from their CWU performances there, neither Bighill nor Reilly played there since, even though Reilly was briefly on the Hawks roster.

They have, however, continued to make plays and win games as two of the brightest young stars of the Canadian Football League.

Reilly, recruited to Central as a Washington State transfer by John Zamberlin, went north first. He had bounced around the NFL on several scout teams and had gotten a brief look by the Seahawks before joining the BC Lions in 2010.

After three seasons as a backup, Reilly was acquired by the Edmonton Eskimos and last year, on 4-14 team with a porous offensive line, had a breakout year.

He threw for 4,207 yards and 27 touchdowns, both of which ranked second in the league, and also ran for 709 yards which ranked fifth overall and first among quarterbacks.

To better withstand the pounding he takes, Reilly this season has added some 25 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame.

The Canadian Press, in its CFL preview, included Reilly among its 10 players to watch.

Bighill, who the Lions signed in 2011 at Reilly’s behest, became a starter in his second year and is now regarded as one of the league’s top defenders.

During each of the last two seasons, the 5-10, 230-pound Montesano native has been named to the CFL all-star team. In 2012 he was second in the league with 104 tackles and was third in sacks with nine — the most by a Lions LB in 20 years.

Last year, despite missing time with an ankle sprain, he again recorded 104 tackles and nine sacks to go with three fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles and two defensive scores.

No wonder they call him Biggie.

And no wonder Baldwin, who recruited Bighill prior to the former Central quarterback and assistant coach’s one-year stint as CWU head coach, was flabbergasted by Bighill’s big play against Eastern.

“When I was an assistant at Eastern,” Baldwin said earlier this month during a telephone interview, “I recruited Adam because southwest Washington was my (recruiting) area. And I remember Paul Wulff (then EWU’s head coach) liked him. Things didn’t work out for him at Eastern, but later I was applying for the Central job and I remember thinking, well heck, if I get the job, that’s going to be my first stop.

“And it was. I went to about a zillion places during my first couple of weeks in that job, but Montesano was the first one, to talk to Adam. And the rest, so to speak, is history.”

While Bighill was an impact player in 2007 as a true freshman, starting nine of 12 games, Reilly was then entrenched as one of the best quarterbacks in NCAA Division II. The Wildcats went 10-3 that season, in which Reilly was a junior, and recorded the program’s first D-II playoff victories before falling to Grand Valley State in the quarterfinals.

Baldwin, that year, would call Reilly “the toughest quarterback I ever coached.”

During his more recent interview, Baldwin said, “That’s not taking anything away from Erik Meyer or Matt Nichols, or Zak Hill (other QBs Baldwin has coached at either Eastern or Central). But Mike just had a way of willing a team down the field. He could just take a team and say, ‘You know what, we’re going to find a way to score.’

“It might mean he’d have to get 20 yards on a quarterback sneak, or it might mean he’d get his helmet knocked off. But he’d get it done.”

Suffice it to say, then, that Baldwin — whose career completion percentage of .614, mostly as Jon Kitna’s backup, remained a Central record until Reilly compiled a .640 mark — is not surprised by the CFL success of either of his former players.

“Not at all,” he said. “Both have all the intangibles. It’s one thing to be a grinder and be mentally tough, go hard all the time and have that great motor. But these two guys have some incredible talent and skills to do the things they’re doing.

“Yes, they are tough and they go hard all the time. But let’s not dismiss the fact that both of these guys can play the game.”

At a very high level and in a very good league.

And both Adam Bighill and Mike Reilly could be CFL stars for a very long time.


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