VANCOUVER - A record-setting season earned Solomon Elimimian a piece of CFL history Thursday night.
The B.C. Lions linebacker was named the league's outstanding player, the first pure defensive performer to receive its highest individual accolade. The six-foot, 227-pound Elimimian also captured top defensive player honours during the CFL awards banquet at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
And for good reason. Elimimian, the 2010 CFL top rookie, posted 143 defensive tackles and 151 total tackles, both CFL records, and added five sacks. Elimimian, 28, registered the double in voting conducted by 53 members of the Football Reporters of Canada and the nine CFL head coaches.
"Man, I couldn't sleep, I was so nervous thinking about my speech, thinking about what I need," said Elimimian, who was up at 4 a.m. on Thursday. "It's nerve-wracking because it's something that's uncharted.
"Winning an award is great but something of this magnitude I probably won't fully comprehend, fully appreciate until later on. It's unbelievable."
In his acceptance speech, Elimimian paid tribute to former Lions head coach Mike Benevides, who was in attendance, and invited teammates and family up on stage with him. And when Elimimian received the top defensive player award, he also recognized his presenter, five-time winner Willie Pless.
"Willie is the man," Elimimian said. "I think it's important to understand the guys who've paved the way for you.
"When you come to the CFL you have to look at a guy like Willie Pless, who has won (top) defensive player five times in a row. Who can say they've done that? I'm glad I was able to meet him."
While this season was Elimimian's most productive it was also an emotionally draining one. With each passing week, the Lions linebacker said he felt the heavy weight of expectation regarding the outstanding player award.
"I don't think people understand how mentally difficult it was every week to go out there and perform," he said. "In a sport like football playing the position I play it was tough and the more and more we kept going the more pressure there was.
"It was the most emotional season I've had in my whole career."
And Elimimian had some bad news for opposing offences: He's not reached his peak yet.
"I just feel like mentally I'm starting to come into my own," he said. "My thing was I knew I was going to dominate every game, it was just about how much I was going to dominate."
Elimimian earned the outstanding player award by a 48-14 margin over Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray. Despite requiring off-season shoulder surgery, Ray, 35 was the CFL's passing leader with 4,595 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Ray was also a finalist to Calgary's Jon Cornish for the award last year.
Elimimian secured the top defensive player by a 58-4 margin over Montreal Alouettes linebacker Bear Woods, the CFL's second-leading tackler with 89.
Cornish didn't come away empty-handed, capturing his third straight top Canadian award by a 50-12 margin over defensive lineman Ted Laurent of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Cornish led the CFL in rushing with 1,082 yards despite playing only nine regular-season games.
Cornish became the second three-time winner, joining former Ottawa star Tony Gabriel in that exclusive group.
"He's truly a remarkable Canadian," Cornish said of Gabriel. "I'm pretty happy to be compared to him."
Laurent recorded a career-best nine sacks for Hamilton, which faces Calgary on Sunday in the Grey Cup game at B.C. Place Stadium.
The other individual award winners included Toronto kicker/punter Swayze Waters (special-teams player), Calgary centre Brett Jones (top lineman) and Edmonton Eskimos linebacker Dexter McCoil (rookie).
Veteran Calgary long-snapper Randy Chevrier captured the Tom Pate award for outstanding community service while Toronto linebacker James Yurichuk received the Jake Gaudaur Veteran Trophy.
Mark Cohon presented the Commissioner's award to Ottawa Redblacks owners Roger Greenberg, Jeff Hunt, John Pugh, John Ruddy and Bell Shenkman for returning the CFL to the Canadian capital. Saskatchewan Roughriders president Jim Hopson received the Hugh Campbell Distinguished Leadership award for his contributions to the CFL.
Waters, 27, earned the special-teams award by a 51-11 margin over Lirim Hajrullahu of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Waters' season began tragically as his best friend, Tait Hendrix, died in a motorcycle accident during training camp. Waters wore No. 34 — Hendrix's high school number — this year and dedicated the '14 season to Hendrix's memory.
"I wanted to do it to honour him, honour our friendship," said Waters. "He was the kind of guy who lived life to the fullest every day.
"I hope I did him proud."
The six-foot, 180-pound Waters led the CFL in scoring (192 points), field goals tried (52), made (47), punting (47.7 yards) and kickoffs (65.2 yards). Hajrullahu enjoyed a solid rookie campaign, making 40-of-46 field goals (87 per cent) while posting a 43.8-yard punting average 63.5-yard kickoff average.
Jones was honoured for a second straight year after being named the CFL's top rookie in 2013. The six-foot-two, 318-pound Jones, a 23-year-old native of Weyburn, Sask., earned the top lineman honour by a 41-21 margin over Jeff Perrett of the Montreal Alouettes.
Jones played all 18 regular-season games with Calgary and anchored an offensive line that allowed a league-low 26 sacks. The Stampeders also averaged a CFL-best 144 yards rushing per game but Jones feels he can continue to improve.
"I just know there's a lot of areas I can keep getting better," he said. "That's why I keep coming to work every day."
McCoil was the top rookie by a 48-14 margin over Toronto defensive lineman Tristan Okpalaugo. McCoil, 23, scored three defensive TDs this season and also finished tied for the league lead in interceptions with six and had a team-high 67 tackles.
But McCoil accepted the award with a heavy heart as Wednesday he attended his 58-year-old grandmother's funeral. McCoil was planning to bring her to Thursday's awards banquet but she died Nov. 18.
"She was the rock of the family," he said. "I lived with her for a year and a half in high school and I learned a lot from her.
"I lost my grandfather when I was a freshman in college (Tulsa) so I was pretty much that person she looked to. I used to talk to her the day before games and my mom on the day of games. I'm not sure what I will do now."
Okpalaugo also had an impressive first year in the CFL with a team-high 12 sacks for Toronto.