Thursday, July 18, 2024

Emotional return for Ottawa Redblacks Grey Cup hero Henry Burris

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When Henry Burris is re-introduced to RNation on Thursday night at TD Place, the guy they called Smilin’ Hank expects his heart will be beating faster, his palms will be a bit sweaty and the memories will flash back into his head.

Maybe there will be some tears.

The Grey Cup hero, the wounded, resilient warrior of a quarterback who put the Redblacks on his back to win the 2016 Grey Cup, is returning to Ottawa for his former team’s CFL season opener vs. the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

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Burris is excited to return to a place that became home for him, his wife Nicole and their kids, Armand and Barron.

“My first response when I got the phone call (to come to Ottawa as part of the Redblacks’ 10th anniversary celebration) was, “Tell me the date, let’s make it happen,’” Burris said. “There are so many people there we call friends and family. To come back and celebrate some of the greatest times we’ve had, we can’t wait.”

The greatest of the great memories is the 2016 Grey Cup, with the Redblacks playing against the favoured Calgary Stampeders. What happened during that game in Toronto is legendary, an incredible storyline, the kind of script they use in movies.

During the pre-game warmup, the then-41-year-old Burris felt a grind and a pop in his left knee and limped into the locker room. There were injections, painkillers and a knee brace strapped on. Just moments before the start of the game, he ran to the Redblacks sideline.

The storyline? He completed 35-of-46 passes for 461 yards. Three of those pass completions went for touchdowns. He also rushed for two touchdowns as Ottawa won 39-33 in overtime, with steady receiver Ernest Jackson juggling, then clutching the game-winning touchdown pass.

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It was an incredibly courageous effort, maybe the greatest Grey Cup performance of all-time, with the quarterback on one good leg.

“It could have gone so many different ways,” Burris said. “If we had to play another quarter, I’m not sure I could have gone. My knee was swelling up, I could feel it stiffening. When I threw that last pass to Ernest, you can see all the weight was on my back foot. My left foot felt like a kickstand, I couldn’t bend it because it was so swollen. I’m not sure I could have made it through another overtime period.”

Two years previous, in their first season, the Redblacks won just twice. They followed that up with an amazing 12-win 2015 regular season.

Remember The Catch? The stunning 93-yard completion by Burris to Greg Ellingson that won the East final? In the Grey Cup, the Redblacks fell 26-20 to Edmonton.

Then came 2016, with Burris missing games because of a finger injury. While he was gone, Trevor Harris secured the starting quarterback job. There were ups and downs as the Redblacks struggled to an 8-9-1 record. But then came the playoffs …

“I tear up when I think about it,” Burris said. “Everything Ottawa had been through, going on 40 years without a Grey Cup. The things I went through that season — breaking a finger, not being able to hold the ball, getting booed off the field, telling TSN to shove it and all of those things, then to have that storybook ending … it really could be a book.

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“What we were able to achieve in such a short period of time, it’ll probably never get done again. An expansion team going from winning a couple of games the first year to going to back-to-back Grey Cups, it’s really remarkable.”

Part of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020 and a two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player (2010, 2015), Burris won three Grey Cup championships, earning Grey Cup MVP honours in 2008 and 2015.

He ended his CFL career ranked third all-time with 63,639 passing yards and had 373 touchdown connections. He led the CFL in passing yards three times — 2012 with 5,367 yards, 2013 with 4,927 yards and 2015 with 5,693 yards. He also spent time in the National Football League with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

Following NFL coaching jobs with Chicago, Jacksonville and the L.A. Rams, Burris now is a co-offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach with Florida A&M, where Armand, who’s now 18, will soon be going into his freshman season as a receiver. Barron, who’s 15, is a kicker and quarterback in high school.

“I tell (Barron) kickers can play a lot longer, they don’t get hit,” Burris said with a laugh. “And, people don’t boo you as much.”

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“It seems like yesterday, the boys were on the stage at the Grey Cup celebration in Ottawa — one was holding a wood cookie, the other one was making sure I didn’t tip over and fall while I was on crutches. Here we are eight years later. It shows you how time flies.”

Burris stepped away from the Redblacks and the CFL, retiring early in 2017. Asked if he missed being on the field, he said: “As a player, no. That last year, taking all the hits I took … the injuries. It was over for me. That Grey Cup, having a cartilage tear. My body, was ‘Hey, man, this it.’

“I enjoy the quietness of being able to work with young men, helping make them the best they can be. And, I’m able to help my son out. That’s everything.

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“Do I see myself coaching in the CFL one day? Heck, yeah. I hope to make it happen. Trust me, when it comes to being able to coach your son playing college football, I wouldn’t take anything over that. But my ultimate goal is to be a head coach and I see that happening.”

On Wednesday, Burris flew from Tallahassee to Chicago to meet his wife and kids, then it was on to Ottawa.

The talk will be about returning and seeing old friends and standing in front of a fan base that will welcome back its hero.

“Who would have known that it would be like this when we made the decision to join this new expansion team?” Burris said. “We’re so happy we did.”

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