Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Former Redblack Henry Burris back in Ottawa for celebration

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The cheers were loud as Henry Burris, wearing his No. 1 jersey, ran onto the TD Place field just before 7:20 p.m. Thursday.

With dark clouds hovering above the stadium and bad weather threatening, there were plenty of empty seats at TD Place, but the longstanding love affair with Burris, the quarterback legend, picked up where it left off eight years ago.

With teammates Antoine Pruneau and Brad Sinopoli standing beside him on the field, the three-time Grey Cup champ and two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player was honoured by Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, who proclaimed it Henry Burris Day.

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As part of the Redblacks’ 10th anniversary celebrations, the team brought Burris, his wife Nicole and their sons Armand and Barron, back for Ottawa’s CFL season-opener against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Legendary Ottawa Redblacks QB Henry Burris
Legendary Ottawa Redblacks QB Henry Burris, his wife and their sons were back for his former team’s CFL season-opener Thursday. (Left to right) Nicole, Barron, Armand and Henry.) Photo by Tim Baines /Postmedia Network

A few hours before Thursday’s game, Burris sat at a podium in the Telus Media Room, beneath the south-side stands, and answered questions from local media.

Wearing his Grey Cup ring from 2016, he smiled a lot and laughed a lot; that’s why they call him Smilin’ Hank, the charm is still there.

He talked about his love for a community and a football fan base that embraced him. And he talked about returning to place he called home, the emotions and chills he felt by again stepping into the stadium.

He told stories about his time in Ottawa, going back to the 2014 expansion season when the Redblacks were dreadful, then through the huge successes of 2015 and the Grey Cup victory.

Topics included a huge free-agent haul by the Redblacks before the 2015 season, injuries and a quarterback controversy in 2016, the post-game Grey Cup victory celebration and the retirement.

Burris, who spent the final three years of his storied CFL career in Ottawa and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2020, talked about the off-season following a 2-16 finish in their 2014 expansion season.

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“(Early in 2015, assistant general manager) Brock Sunderland said to me, ‘Hey, we had a lot of drops (from our receivers) last year, what are we going to do?’ Then, he’s like, ‘I’ve got Chris Williams lined up. What do you think about Ernest Jackson? We’re going to bring Brad Sinopoli back home. Then, he says: ‘What do you want?’ I’m like, ‘Go get Greg Ellingson.’ So, he says: ‘I can get all those guys, I’m also going to get (offensive lineman) SirVincent Rogers.’ I was like, ‘That’s awesome.’ ”

And, that was a large group of difference makers for a 2015 team that went 12-6 in the regular season before falling 26-20 to Edmonton in the Grey Cup.

“You can’t cheat the game of football, the football gods won’t let you do that,” said Burris. “If had won in Year 2, that would have been outstanding — to go from probably being one of the worst teams ever, to being Grey Cup champions.

“Being one drive away from winning it all and going through that adversity helped us (in 2016).”

In 2016, the Redblacks opened with three wins and a tie. It went downhill. Burris had a finger injury. With backup QB Trevor Harris banged up (knee and ankle), Burris tried to return early before the finger was fully healed. He struggled.

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But, when the team needed him most — in the Grey Cup — Burris, hobbled by a knee injury, led his team to victory.

“I rushed back early, I couldn’t really hold on to the ball,” said Burris. “They told me I’d be out six to eight weeks, but I returned in four. It was all about trying to do what I could to help the team win. You want to be there for your team, but maybe I didn’t make the best decision. I knew at some point they were going to put Trevor back in because I couldn’t really hold the ball. Once I was 100%, it was time to go.

“I had taken a hit against Winnipeg, my entire left side was tingling for the rest of the season. It was the little things that continued to build up, from the finger to the tingling. The guys from Calgary were hitting me (in the Grey Cup) and I’m laughing. They’re like, ‘Why are you laughing?’ I said, ‘You can hit me as hard as you want, I probably won’t feel it because they shot (my knee) up and gave me a couple of Toradol — it was like a Brett Favre cocktail.”

In the moments after the Grey Cup win in Toronto, Burris stood in the locker room, spraying champagne, with a big cigar dangling from his mouth.

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“I don’t know whether I should feel ashamed, but I had the cigar, I’m spraying champagne and I see Armand back there looking at the cup,” said Burris. “It was pure jubilation and I’m doing that stuff in front of my son. Everything just came pouring out. We were celebrating until the sun came up, enjoying the moment. We knew that was it, we knew that was the last game I would ever play.”

Burris talked about the then and the now; how the big moments can be connected to players who have been there and done that.

“Practise with great intentions because great intentions lead to great outcomes,” said Burris, who is co-offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach with Florida A&M following NFL coaching jobs with Chicago, Jacksonville and the L.A. Rams.

Asked about bringing Burris back to Ottawa, Redblacks president Adrian Sciarra said: “Henry and I moved to Ottawa right around the same time with the start of the Redblacks. There’s always a process to launching an expansion team and to become relevant and competitive in the league. Thanks to Henry, the players and the staff, it happened really quickly. It takes the right people, ultra competitive and outstanding in what they do. Henry was clearly the leader of our team in those first years.

“We’ve got lots of work to do. Henry talked about the ebbs and flows and we’ve got to rebuild again. We’ve got to win football games and fill the stadium again, like we did in those early years. (What happened in the early years of the Redblacks) showed Ottawa is a football town, Ottawa loves its football teams. Part of this 10th anniversary season is connecting some of that history with the future.”

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