Hajrullahu lands with Panthers
Lirim Hajrullahu can thank his Canadian football heritage for helping the kicker land a spot on the practice roster of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
With Panthers kicker Joey Slye struggling this season, including missing a potential game-winning field goal in a loss last week to the Minnesota Vikings, Carolina invited Hajrullahu, Chandler Catanzaro and Louie Zervos to a tryout last week.
“It wasn’t an easy workout,” the Governor Simcoe alumnus said. “They brought in a guy similar in stature to myself and he had been in the NFL for the last five years and done well but bounced from team to team.”
That kicker, Catanzaro, kicked for the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers while Zervos had a solid collegiate career at Ohio University.
“I had my hands full when it came to the workout but luckily it was minus five degrees (fahrenheit) when we had the workout in the morning,” Hajrullahu said. “That kind of worked in my favour because the other kickers were from Tampa and South Carolina.”
The 29-year-old Oakville resident couldn’t have asked for better, terrible conditions.
“It was freezing and I was used to the cold. There was snow on the ground and we were out there for a good hour and a half and our feet were soaked and cold,” he said. “I made all my field goals, did well with my punting and showcased my abilities.
“The coaches and the GM were happy and they wanted to sign me for the practice roster position. I was more than happy to do that and now I am training with the team every day and just staying ready.”
The five-foot-11, 205-pound kicker had been staying game ready by playing for the Generals in The Spring League in San Antonio, Texas.
“I wanted to stay relevant and exhaust all opportunities to showcase my abilities. I went down there, played well and the team that I played with is actually in the championship tomorrow (Tuesday) night.”
The audition with Carolina was Hajrullahu’s fourth tryout with a NFL team this season. In September, he was clearly the best statistical kicker at training camp with the Los Angeles Rams but was released when the Rams decided to go with Sam Sloman, Los Angeles’ seventh-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Sloman attended Miami University just like Rams head coach Sean McVay and had also signed a four-year contract, including a $75,492 signing bonus.
After Los Angeles, Hajrullahu also workouts with the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles. Through all the disappointment, the former Western Mustangs star never lost faith in himself.
“I am not going to lie. It has been a difficult year because in my mind, I know I can go up against any guy and compete against them,” he said. “I just persevered, I trained harder and I didn’t make the excuse of why not me? I decided I needed to work harder and it was doing anything I could to motivate myself.”
He knew it was all on him and the efforts he put into it.
“At the end of the day, no one really cares if you were handed a rotten hand of whatever it may be. For me, it was reality and I had to make the best of it,” he said. “The only way I can control my next opportunity is by working really hard and being prepared.”
Hajrullahu knows an opportunity could come up at any moment.
“A kicker has a bad game and sometimes they will want to bring in a kicker just to see the ability for the future.”
Before starting with the Panthers, Hajrullahu had to quarantine for six days. Since then, it has been full speed ahead.
“They have me involved with the practices every day which is very important and it helps me get more comfortable with the snapper, the holder and the coaches,” he said. “A lot of times, the practice roster guys don’t get that opportunity and I am fortunate to be in this position.”
Hajrullahu will have to continue to wait following Carolina’s 32-27 loss to the Denver Broncos Sunday.
“The kicker did well this week, He made the kicks he had to make, although, there was nothing too crazy. I am just going to take it day by day and stay prepared for whenever they need me.”
Because of the NFL’s COVID protocols, Hajrullahu wasn’t on the field with the Panthers this past Sunday. He still woke up early and went to kick on the practice fields.
“With NFL rosters, they can be changed up until 90 minutes beforehand, so I wanted to put myself in a position of What if this was me next week or what if I was playing today? What would I be doing to warm up like I did in the CFL?”
After working out, he went to the hotel across the street, showered and then came back to watch the kickers warm up.
“As they were warming up, I was mentally preparing as if was taking those kicks,” he said. “Because the NFL and CFL have different schedules, I wanted to make sure I would be comfortable with whatever I would be doing.”
Hajrullahu described the experience as awesome.
“To me, it was still a surreal moment because it is everything that I have been working towards,” he said. “I believe I can play in this league and it helped me validate the reason why I am here.”
To date, the most surreal thing about Hajrullahu being with Carolina was getting to meet players like running back Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“They came up, said hello and introduced themselves. He said, ‘Hi I’m Christian McCaffrey’ and I told him I knew who he was. It’s kind of cool to meet those types of athletes.”
Away from the field, Hajrullahu is living in a hotel.
“There are three weeks left in the season and I’m not sure if we are mathematically out but our chances are slim,” he said. “I probably won’t sign a lease or anything like that but I have some family close by.”
Prior to trying to make the NFL this season, Hajrullahu had an excellent season with the Hamilton Ti-Cats. He was first in the CFL in field goals made, third in scoring and sixth in field goal percentage to earn league all-star honours for the second time in his career. Hamilton released Hajrullahu to allow him to pursue NFL opportunities.
Editor’s note: After this story was published, the Panthers were forced to waive Hajrullahu because of a work visa issue.