Henry Burris made a career of proving people wrong.
Few expected him to have the success he achieved in football, especially in Canada, where he won three Grey Cups during a roller-coaster 17-year career.
“Nobody knows the path of greatness,” says Wally Buono, the CFL’s most successful coach ever. “Did he deliver more than what we were anticipating? Yes.
“I think you’ve got to be foolish to think you could foresee somebody playing 17 years, somebody doing what he’s done. But when you look at the personality, the mindset, the competitive nature, Henry is unique in many ways.”
As he retires from pro football at the age of 41, Burris will be remembered as one of the CFL’s all-time greats. A three-time league MVP and one of just three CFL players to pass for over 60,000 career yards, he’ll go out on top after guiding the Ottawa Redblacks to an unlikely Grey Cup title last season.
An endearing figure known for his ever-present smile and bubbly personality, Burris also has an edge. The monicker of Good Hank/Bad Hank hovered over him throughout his career. When he was on his game, there were few better in league history, but there were also times when an untimely interception or fumble would contribute to a costly loss.
“He’s the type of person who likes to hear the negative things in order to motivate himself to do better,” said former Calgary Stampeders teammate Nik Lewis. “He’s a pretty intense competitor, he wears his heart on his sleeve.
“He’s someone you know will give you everything he has. I’ve always said when he’s on, there’s none better.”
Throughout Grey Cup week, Burris talked about the Redblacks being underestimated and how only they believed they could win. Despite suffering a knee injury in the warmup, Burris threw for 461 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two more to anchor a stunning overtime victory over the favoured Stampeders.
“He’s intensely competitive and I don’t mean normal competitiveness,” said former Toronto Argonauts GM Jim Barker. “Henry has this inner drive to him . . . I always felt like he played with a chip that he had to prove something.
“He doesn’t have to prove anything, I mean, the guy has won Grey Cups. But every time he was out, he came back from it . . . and did it with style and class. He was exactly what Ottawa needed.”
Barker knows Burris’s competitiveness first-hand. He was Calgary’s GM in 2005 when the club signed Burris as a free agent for his second stint with the franchise.
After winning 15 games combined the previous three years, Calgary went 11-7 in Burris’s first season and was a Grey Cup champion just two years later.
“Henry came in and basically saved the franchise,” Barker said. “People became excited again.
“He was everything you wanted in a CFL quarterback . . . everything you’d hope he’d be.”
The Stampeders eventually traded Burris to Hamilton just three years after their Grey Cup title. Determined to show the Stamps the error of their ways, Burris led the Ticats to the 2013 CFL championship game. And when Hamilton gave up on Burris, he made them pay too, guiding the Redblacks to consecutive Grey Cup appearances.
That included leading Ottawa over Hamilton 35-28 in the 2015 East final, thanks to a late 93-yard TD strike to Greg Ellingson, another former Ticat.
Buono, the B.C. Lions head coach/GM, was Calgary’s head coach when Burris began his CFL career in 1997 behind veterans Dave Dickenson and Jeff Garcia.
“The thing that impressed you about Henry was, obviously, his arm strength, his personality and smile,” Buono said. “He came from a program (Temple) where he was always over-matched but although they lost he was productive.
“When we brought him in, we were impressed by his ability to throw the football. The rest has taken care of itself.”
Burris routinely embraced the community he played in, often making off-season appearances at team events and serving as a spokesman for a number of organizations. While in Calgary, he set up a charitable foundation and upon arriving in Ottawa, Burris moved his family â€” wife, Nicole and young sons Armond and Barron â€” from Alberta to the Canadian capital and has often gushed about becoming a hockey parent.
Burris has also embraced his adopted homeland. Both of his sons were born here and he and his wife have applied for Canadian citizenship.
Burris isn’t the first quarterback to play into his 40s. At least eight â€” including former CFL star Doug Flutie â€” retired in the NFL after their 40th birthday while Damon Allen was 44 when he ended his 23-year career in Canada in 2008.
What made Burris’s longevity remarkable was his relative durability despite being a scrambling quarterback.
“The way he played, you would’ve never have said he was going to last that long because running was a big part of his game,” Barker said. “To me, that’s a sign of greatness when players can stay healthy when they play that position.
“I believe Henry could play another two years and I believe Doug could’ve come up (to CFL) and played probably as long. Those two guys are freaks, it just doesn’t happen like that every day.”
Ultimately, though, time is the one opponent no athlete can defeat. And Buono won’t miss having to account for Burris in future gameplans.
“I’m somewhat surprised he’s retiring,” Buono said. “But I’m happy he’s retiring a winner.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press