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Lirim Hajrullahu at last gets a shot in the NFL

There were chances to advance his professional football career. Unfortunately, nothing ever materialized for kicker Lirim Hajrullahu.

Until this year.

Following six seasons in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Hajrullahu is finally getting his NFL chance after signing with the Los Angeles Rams in April as a candidate to replace Greg Zuerlein.

"I mean, it's an awesome journey that I've been through here," Hajrullahu said on a video conference call with reporters earlier last month. "Coming from the CFL to the NFL, there's usually at least one or two guys every year that make it down to the NFL, so I'm just happy I was able to get this opportunity."

During his offseasons over the last five to six years, Hajrullahu would attend free agent combines while under contract with his CFL team as long as the team's general manager granted him permission. Each one Hajrullahu attended, his goal was to see how he stacked up against other NFL-caliber kickers.

Prior to shutdowns prompted by COVID-19, the one he most recently attended was former NFL special teams coordinator and longtime kicking coach Gary Zauner's from March 8-10. New Rams special teams coordinator John Bonamego and assistant special teams coach Tory Woodbury were both on hand.

"That's usually the biggest one of the year," Hajrullahu said of Zauner's free agent combine. "It's usually about 100 specialists, and then he narrows it down to about 30-35 kickers on the final day where scouts come."

The St. Catharines, Ontario, native almost wasn't an option for the Rams this spring.

Hajrullah said the Seahawks brought him in for a tryout after kicker Sebastian Janikowski suffered a hamstring injury on a missed 57-yard field goal try in their 2019 Wild Card playoff game, but nothing came out of it. He also had a couple NFL opportunities pop up last December, but his CFL team would not give him permission to try out, so he asked for his release to pursue his NFL dream uninhibited.

The gamble seemed to pay off. He felt he performed well at Zauner's combine, and that confidence was justified when the Rams "and a few other teams" expressed interest in him.

"L.A. was the first one to strike, and I think it's a perfect situation to compete," Hajrullahu said.

Indeed, it will be a wide-open competition. The other two candidates brought in by the Rams, former XFL and AAF kicker Austin MacGinnis and seventh-round draft pick Samuel Sloman, have also never kicked in an NFL game before – though MacGinnis has attended rookie minicamps and, like Hajrullahu, free agent combines and NFL tryouts.

No stranger to competition, Hajrullah is eager to make the most of it.

"I'm just worrying about what I can do and not what I can't control," Hajrullahu said. "What the organization does is their call. Myself, nothing really changes. Be myself, take my kicks and just be as ready as possible come training camp."

Recognizing his increasing age and the historic decline in performance of placekickers around the league last season, the 30-year-old kicker knew this was the best time to make his biggest push yet toward the NFL.

"As much as this is a window for myself to get into the NFL, it's also a kicking window, I feel, just because some other kickers have been struggling," Hajrullahu said. "This is a perfect combination for myself to get in. I've had professional experience, I've played in big games and I believe I can compete with the best of them."

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