Hajrullahu debuts with Dallas Cowboys
Kicker Lirim Hajrullahu made his debut with the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday in a 43-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons. DALLAS COWOYS PHOTO
It’s Monday night at a hotel near the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility in Frisco, Texas, and Lirim Hajrullahu is in his room watching Monday Night Football.
He is relaxing after a day’s training following his NFL debut Sunday in a 43-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. The 31-year-old former St. Catharines resident, who was 5-5 in converts in the game, is way beyond needing to pinch himself to realize he is not dreaming about where his professional career has taken him.
“I am grateful that they gave me the opportunity to play yesterday,” the Governor Simcoe alumnus said. “For me, it is a dream come true, for sure, but I’ve played professional football before and I feel like this is something that was bound to happen and thank God it happened because I have worked really hard to get to this moment in my life. All the hard work feels like it is paying off.”
Hajrullahu signed with the Cowboys in August and saw action in the third week of the pre-season, but was waived prior to final cuts at training camp.
When Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein was placed on the COVID-19 early last week, Hajrullahu and another kicker were invited to audition for the role after the team’s practice last Wednesday. The kickers took turns booting three field goals until they each had kicked 12 times.
“You have the owner, the general manager, the head coach, the special teams coach part of about 15 people behind you writing down what they see in your workouts,” he said. “After we did 12 field goals, we did 12 kick-offs and then they told us to go shower up and they would let us know who made the team. Luckily enough, my name was called.”
For the rest of the week, Hajrullahu attended meetings and workouts and worked on the timing required to kick field goals in the NFL.
“The game is a little bit faster down here. I only have 1.3 seconds from the ball snap to the ball kick so it is a matter of finding that rhythm with the snapper and holder.”
It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that Hajrullahu found out that he would be kicking in Sunday’s game because Zuerlein was still testing positive for COVID.
That positive test set the stage for him to make his first NFL regular season appearance before 93,436 fans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“Obviously I had bit of jitters but the pre-season really helped me,” he said. “I felt really, really comfortable and at home with everything that I did and I felt great with the kickoffs.
“All week our plan was not to have Cordarrelle Patterson return any kickoffs because he is one of the best-ever in the league. It was ‘We are signing you but this is your challenge to win.’ And it was me against one of the best returners in the game.”
Hajrullahu was up to the challenge with all seven kickoffs resulting in touchbacks
“I didn’t give him an opportunity to return any balls and I was extremely happy with that,” he said. “I did everything I could in the game and I didn’t let the moment get too big or too small. I remained focused because I wanted to remain even keel.”
He is not sure what will happen this week.
“It is day to day and it all depends on his testing again. I did everything I could and I hope that I made an impression on management to keep me around,” Hajrullahu said. “Whether it is to compete or keep me around on the practice squad, I am willing to do that. It is all I can train for and it is all I can hope for.”
Because of the late notice that he would be kicking Sunday, only Hajrullahu’s wife, Deniza, was able to be in Texas to share the moment with him.
“I was thankful that she was able to share the moment with me and it is something that we will cherish forever.”
In the future, he is hopeful to have more of his family members attend his games because they have been riding along with all the highs and lows of his football career.
“For myself, I understand what I have signed up but for Deniza and my mom it is a little bit different. They understand sports but I am waiting for the phone to ring on Mondays, I have to fly out Tuesdays or Wednesdays and then go to workouts. And then it’s ‘We are not going to sign you on the day, we are going to sign somebody else.’ Everything is up and down and it is very difficult on my family members.
“I am trying to be patient and work on my dream but at the same time I know it is affecting the people around me because it is not an easy road.”
The former kicker for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts received an avalanche of texts congratulating him on his NFL appearance.
“Some of the close family members and friends I have replied to but there are a lot more to get to. It is humbling to see all the people who are reaching out after watching the game.”
Hajrullahu was especially happy to receive congratulations from the young kickers he is training or has trained at Coach Kick Elite Specialists (https://www.ckesfootball.com).
“It’s the whole notion that if they can see it, they can believe it,” he said. “It is opening up a lot of eyes for a lot of our younger kickers and that is great to see because it has been a tough couple of years for them.”