Arthur: Henry Burris, a Grey Cup win would bring the validation he craves


Wherever he goes, Henry Burris carries his past with him. We all do, I suppose. For some people it’s an anchor, and for some it’s fuel, and for some it’s something to escape. For Henry Burris — the third-leading passer in CFL history, a surefire hall of famer, playing in his third Grey Cup in four years — it might be all three.

“This has been my job for over 20-something years, and I have nothing to prove,“ said the 41-year-old Burris, as his Ottawa Redblacks opened as a nine-point underdog to the Calgary Stampeders. “I have nothing to prove. Right now it’s all about going out there and getting the job done. And people still say, can he do it, can he do it? Just watch my game! Let me go out and prove it.”

It was easy to spot the contradiction: He has nothing to prove, so let him go out and prove it. Burris has been a lot of things in his 17-year CFL career: a Stampeder, a Roughrider, a Stampeder again — that ending hurt the most — a Tiger-Cat, a Redblack, a most outstanding player, a champion and a castoff, and it’s the last two parts he needs most.

“To me it wouldn’t be complete, as far as the journey I’ve been through, the ups and downs, and the crap I’ve had to deal with — to me it wouldn’t be complete without having another Grey Cup as a part of that,” said Burris.

Anthony Calvillo and Damon Allen, his only CFL contemporaries in terms of sheer longevity and production, found homes. But in Burris’s time in Calgary and Hamilton, those teams found QBs of the future. Ottawa has, too.

Circle of football life, right? Burris isn’t sure. He is even starting to indulge the idea that other forces might be at play; whether he is the same as Kevin Glenn and Kerry Joseph, black QBs who were discarded after appearing in or winning Grey Cups. He wonders.

Now, the CFL has been historically progressive on race issues, and Ricky Ray was traded by the same GM who moved the aging Joseph. Glenn has played for seven different franchises, and Hank will have a gig next year if he wants one. But his experience is his, and his view is his. We’re all the hero of our own stories, and Hank perhaps more than most.

“I’ve had people tell me you’re not this colour, so you can’t do that,” says Burris. “People always thought that because I was black, I was supposed to be fast. One coach told me, you’re not fast enough, you’re not going to play quarterback for us. And I was like, well, the ball gets there a lot faster than I do. I was like, I’m a passer. He said, I’m sorry.

“He’s actually called and apologized since then.”

Bill Blankenship, the high school coach in Spiro, Okla., remembers it a little differently. He says in the eighth grade Burris hadn’t sprouted yet, and was “probably every bit of 140 pounds.” He loved Hank’s demeanour and work ethic, and said Burris — backup QB, backup safety, receiver — “was adamant about proving he could do it, even though he was undersized, and kind of that guy who said, I’ll show you that I’m not too little to be doing this, or I’ll show you I’m not too young.”

Either way, Burris got his shot under a new coach. Nearly 30 years later, Burris says, “Once that opportunity came, that was the biggest moment ever.” As for the call, Blankenship says, “I was just always so proud as I saw what he did. I probably made the statement that he should have been the quarterback sooner.”

There are no apologies in the CFL: there is only the past, swirling to overtake Burris again. Backup Trevor Harris is 11 years younger and will be Ottawa’s starter next year. Burris has taken an expansion team coming off a 2-16 debut to consecutive Grey Cups and his reward will be history, repeating.

“Of course, we all know (the circumstances) as far as the quarterback situation with Ottawa,” says Burris. “But right now it’s my time. So I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

So: what if he wins? What if he somehow overcomes the franchise whose cut hurt the most? A win on Sunday as a heavy underdog would be more of the validation Henry Burris has been chasing since he was a kid. He used to tell Blankenship, I love solving puzzles. Let me go out and prove it. He smiles at everybody, beams, and people who have known him forever see a man who needs to be loved. What has hurt him most? Being criticized for making mistakes in big moments, being portrayed as unable to read the puzzle, and being let go, unloved. Calgary. It had to be Calgary.

“The fire’s still lit in me,” says Burris, “and there’s been different logs that have been added to the fire, and it’s time to go out there and just let them all burn.”

A win, and maybe Henry Burris will finally feel validation. Calvillo was a choker until he wasn’t. Beat the mighty Stampeders and maybe Henry Burris can finally say, I told you so. It would be incredible. And the question would then be whether, for Smilin’ Hank, that would be enough.

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