13 juin 2024

Henry Burris: la première légende de ROUGE ET NOIR

On the Ottawa REDBLACKS’ very first offensive snap in the 104th Grey Cup, Jaime Elizondo made a bold play call.

He sent stand-out receiver Brad Sinopoli out wide, where he would receive the pass, before looking downfield to throw one deep, hoping to catch the Calgary Stampeders’ defence off guard.

There was only one problem: Henry Burris skipped the throw off the turf five yards short of Sinopoli, resulting in an eight-yard loss.

“Oh crap,” Sinopoli was guilty of thinking at the time, unsure if Burris was healthy enough to have his best stuff. Not only did he deliver his best, the REDBLACKS would get the best anyone had ever seen.


If there’s one thing Burris knew all about, it was adversity. Whether being pushed aside by NFL teams, or moving around the CFL, including being released by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after leading them to the Grey Cup in 2013, he needed an opportunity which would allow him to be unapologetically him, and something he could call his own

With other offers on the table, Burris happily signed with the expansion REDBLACKS on February 4th, 2014, setting into motion the story of Ottawa’s newest superstar.

“He was the perfect face of the franchise,” said the radio voice of the REDBLACKS on TSN 1200, A.J. Jakubec. “He was good on the field, but he was that person that was shaking hands and kissing babies, and doing it with a smile on his face. Henry Burris is one of the few people I have ever met where everywhere he goes, he just seems to make people happy, and he loves doing it.”

Although the REDBLACKS went 2-16 in their inaugural season, and Burris had his worst statistical season since 2003, there was plenty of reason for optimism heading into the offseason, with Burris’ attitude helping lift those around him.

“Hank brought in years of knowledge, wisdom, and leadership,” said original REDBLACK, Nigel Romick. “The leadership aspect really stood out to me. I always remember the first time I met Hank, he made me feel like the most important person ever, but he did that for everyone. He made sure everyone worked their hardest to reach their potential.”

The 2015 campaign saw a revamped squad for the REDBLACKS, as the franchise brought in numerous pieces who became fan favourites over time. Among them, Peterborough native, Brad Sinopoli, who had previously played with Burris in Calgary.

For many players, Burris was a big part of the reason they chose Ottawa. He placed calls to nearly every individual, and not only sold them on what the REDBLACKS could do for them, but how they could be a big piece of making the team great.

“He was already a larger-than-life kind of figure when I came into the CFL,” Sinopoli said. “I was in this eyes-wide-open state in the year I spent with him. He was obviously an incredible quarterback, but he was unlike any person I’ve ever been around, he just had this aura that when you walk into a room, everyone gravitates toward him.”

“When he gave me a call, he made me feel like he wanted me to be there. I didn’t believe [I could be as good as he was making it sound] necessarily, but he had such a gift of believing in people and motivating them. When you talked to him, he made you feel invincible, and like you could do anything on the field, and he’d be right there to help you get there.”

The REDBLACKS blasted their way to a 12-6 record in 2015, and Burris threw for over 5,700 yards, en route to a Grey Cup appearance in Winnipeg. For Jakubec’s money, that season still stands as one of Ottawa’s greatest, standing in stark contrast to just one year prior.

From knowing almost nothing of one another, Burris quickly lassoed the entire group together, uniting both sides of the football in a brotherhood that set the foundation of what was destined to become a great season.

“I have never been around someone who was able to bring a group together that fast,” Sinopoli said. “Everything felt so right, and especially with him leading the pack.”

In the East Final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Burris nearly threw an interception late in the game that surely would have swung the pendulum the other direction, but as he had done so many times before, he overcame, finding Greg Ellingson deep down the sideline, and the rest is history.

“It was the moment where nearly 40 years of heartbreak for Ottawa football fans evaporated,” Jakubec said. “Yeah, they didn’t win the Grey Cup that year, but when you talked to people from Ottawa pro football and everything they have been through, there was always a sense of dread. It felt like that ended with that one play, and it was so special for so many reasons.”

The Burris story itself is incredible, that’s for certain, but it resulted in so many success stories around it, including Jakubec’s. For as long as that play is shown on highlight shows or remembered by fans, Jakubec’s legacy will be intertwined, shining as yet another example of someone who is boosted by Hank’s greatness.

“In some ways, I play a small part in documenting Ottawa’s pro football history, and hopefully that call lives for a long time in this city,” Jakubec said. “I will forever be linked with Hank and Greg in what is one of the biggest plays in the history of Ottawa sports.”

Ottawa fell in the Grey Cup to Edmonton that season, but it seemed they had finally found themselves a foothold once again. In 2016, things weren’t necessarily as rosey, with Burris suffering a finger injury in the first game of the season, before coming back after Trevor Harris went down with an injury of his own.

Jakubec remembers shaking Burris’ hand and seeing his finger sticking out in the wrong direction, but that’s just who he was, he’d do anything to help his team when they needed him the most.

Shortly after he was benched for a healthy Harris – a move which was made understanding Burris wasn’t totally healthy himself – he attended a Quarterback Club event, proving once again that Smilin’ Hank was given that nickname for a reason.

“For all of the ups and downs, Hank handled it with class, and he showed what a true professional he was,” Jakubec said. “I think back to seeing him at a Quarterback Club at the mess hall, and it was right after he had been benched. It was disappointing to him, but there he was smilin’ Hank, as friendly as always.”

Burris did return to the REDBLACKS’ lineup toward the end of the season, and helped Ottawa to their second consecutive Grey Cup, downing Edmonton in a snowy affair.

The build up to the game couldn’t have been crazier. Pundits had practically handed the win to the Stampeders before the game even began, and it only got worse when news broke that Burris had been taken back to the locker room during warm up. Something was seriously wrong.

The REDBLACKS ran out of the tunnel, and their superstar quarterback was nowhere to be seen. For everyone watching, it seemed all but certain he wasn’t going to play.

Then, there he was, running out to the team’s bench like a scene straight out of an action movie.

“There was zero surprise,” Romick said. “He was going to play that game, he was going to do whatever it took.”

That brings us back to where we started, Burris skips the ball to Sinopoli. Well, on second down, he fired a laser into Ellingson for a first down, and suddenly, the panic disappeared.

“After that, it was almost like he couldn’t miss,” Sinopoli said. “He could have made all of those throws with his eyes closed. He threw some balls that you just don’t throw, but he was like a robot. He threw a corner route to Ernerst Jackson, and you’d never ever throw that ball, but he did it with such a zip that he made a one-in-a-million throw like it was a checkdown.”

In a thrilling overtime victory, Burris threw for 461 yards and three touchdowns, and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, cementing his status as the first REDBLACKS’ great, and putting himself into the conversation of best Grey Cup performance of all time.

“It was the best performance I have ever seen from a quarterback,” Sinopoli said. “Some of the throws he was making [were insane], we knew right from the first drive. It was almost like a video game version of Hank.”

For everyone involved with the REDBLACKS in any capacity, Hank means an incredible deal to them, including the fans, who still show up in droves wearing their number one jerseys each and every week.

“I’m grateful that I had the chance to meet him,” said Jimmy Fata, also known as Zipperface. “He’s very approachable, and always happy to see people. There’s nothing phony about Henry, and I love the guy.”

For a brief, albeit bountiful, time in Canadian Football League history, fans in Ottawa felt those same emotions they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s, watching Burris step on the field each week.

Names like Tony Gabriel or Russ Jackson, and Gerry Organ or Moe Racine, legends have been chrisined in their time in Ottawa, no different than Burris managed to do in just three seasons.

Now, with Burris present on Thursday night, everyone in the city is buzzing to have a chance to reminisce on something so special.

“The energy that he has – even through text – is what every player [wishes their teammates have],” Sinopoli said. “When you come back around to see one another and you can relive those moments, that’s honestly one of the best things about this. The joy represents what we felt together when we played with him.”