Henry (Smilin’ Hank) Burris has a chip on his shoulder that is every bit as wide as his smile.
It has grown over his 17 seasons in the CFL, fertilized by repeated rejections from coaches and general managers so that now, when he will start at quarterback for the Ottawa RedBlacks for the second consecutive year in the Grey Cup at the remarkable age of 41, it is more block than chip. Add the fact that the opposition is the heavily favoured Calgary Stampeders, the team that traded Burris to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2012, and Burris sees Sunday’s start at Toronto’s BMO Field as a whole lot of redemption.
The Stampeders were starting to round into the CFL powerhouse they are now when Burris was traded. Up to then, following a 2008 Grey Cup win in which Burris was voted the game’s most-valuable player, the Stamps were a good but inconsistent team. Burris says that rejection drives him more than any other because he played in Calgary for seven seasons, was heavily invested in the team and the community, and never had the chance to watch the rebuilding plan pay off.
“The fact is when you create something and spend so much time there, then it’s taken away from you, it hurts,” said Burris, who maintains a sunny demeanour despite the burn in his psyche. “Do I still carry that with me? Yes I do. I’m an athlete, so you have to carry that motivation with you.”
“I’m looking forward to getting a chance to play against a place I called home for a long time so I’m pretty excited.”
Burris sees his own slights as a metaphor for his fourth CFL team. Like Burris, who won the league’s most-outstanding player award last year at the age of 40, the RedBlacks are a compelling story. In just their third year of existence as an expansion team, they are playing in their second consecutive Grey Cup.
However, given their 8-9-1 record in finishing first in the woeful East Division and that the 15-2-1 Stamps practically strolled into the championship game, few are giving the RedBlacks much of a chance. Burris thinks winning the franchise’s first Grey Cup and his second in four tries as a starter would give both the RedBlacks and him their bona fides as winners.
“Coming into the season, after the first few games everybody put Hamilton on the pedestal as the Grey Cup contender along with Calgary,” Burris said. “It seems like no matter what we’ve done, nobody gives us respect. Maybe they don’t like the fact this is only three years and we’ve been at the show now two years in a row.”
“Just like last week, nobody gave us a chance to beat Edmonton even at home [in the East Division final]. Now we’re playing Calgary. Well, Calgary’s a very good football team, they’ve done a lot of great things this year but again, at the end of the day it’s all about playing football on Sunday. Whoever executes the best, takes care of the football and makes plays will win the game. Why not us?”
The slow burn over rejection is a recurring theme in stories about Burris. There is no doubt the hurt is genuine. Even his wife Nicole has been quoted at length on the subject.
However, Burris also says you need to be aware of the difference between business and personalities in teams’ personnel decisions, such as his release in 2014 by Hamilton Tiger-Cats general manager and head coach Kent Austin after making the Grey Cup in 2013. Austin decided to go with Zach Collaros, who is 13 years younger than Burris.
“It’s nothing personal with Kent, he made a business decision,” Burris said. “But, shoot, you can ask any quarterback in this league when somebody steps in your position, hey if it’s time for the future it might be time but give me my shot. Just don’t take it away from us, give us a chance.”
There is a sense, then, that Burris can compartmentalize his resentment. He admits it is a handy motivational tool.
“I understand business is business. I don’t take things personally,” he said. “But from a competitive standpoint I have to because at some point during the season I’ve got to play those guys again. Those are the guys who said I couldn’t get it done.
“My job is to go out there and not only be better than what I’ve been but now I’ve got this extra fire lit, to show these people yeah, you gave up on me. Here’s to show you shouldn’t have.”
There is much more than wounded pride that keeps Burris among the CFL’s best players at an age where most professional football players have long been retired.
“His work ethic stands for itself,” said 25-year-old second-year RedBlacks running back Kienan LaFrance. “He’s always in the gym, he’s always in treatments. Those are the things young guys notice and respect. That’s what builds a good foundation for a team.”
Burris says tearing the anterior-cruciate ligaments in both knees early in his career taught him the importance of proper exercise, stretching and nutrition. He is known for a rifle arm as a quarterback but he uses his mobility to avoid big collisions, although he calls himself “an ugly runner.”
Also helping Burris are strong genetics, he said. Back home in Spiro, Okla., his 70-year-old father Henry Sr., is a social worker who can still keep up with his teenaged charges. “He’s still racing high-school kids, doing sit-ups and push-ups with them and he’s beating a lot of the kids,” Burris said.
Nicole Burris plays a leading role as well. She was an all-American lacrosse player at Temple University while Burris quarterbacked the football team and remains active along with their sons Armand and Barron. More important, she stoked the competitive fires this season after Burris injured his throwing hand in the season opener, came back too soon and lost his starting job to Trevor Harris for a time.
But the biggest factor may be on the mental side of the game. Many athletes retire saying they can still play the game physically but mentally no longer have the commitment to the necessary work to stay in shape. Not Burris.
“He loves the game still,” said RedBlacks head coach Rick Campbell. “He likes prepping, he likes going to meetings, he likes practice, all those things. Football can be a grind and it can wear you down and he shows no signs of that right now.”
Burris is preparing for the future. He is doing television work in Ottawa, where the family plans to settle, and operates a charitable foundation. He also hopes to turn what is now a series of football camps for children into a sports academy.
Despite the presence of Harris as yet another heir apparent, though, Burris does not sound like anyone who expects to retire after Sunday’s game, win or lose. He thinks his workout regimen and mental approach make him different than your average 41-year-old quarterback.
“I say look at what I’m doing on the field and if you can say that’s an old quarterback I can understand that,” Burris said. “But if you look and say he can still outrun people, he still has a strong arm, he can still do things to be successful, at that point what is the problem?”Report Typo/Error