Quarterback Henry Burris retired this week and though he played just two of his 18 seasons in Hamilton and has something of a strained relationship with the Tiger-Cat faithful, it’s worth remembering his finest moment as a member of the Black and Gold: the 2013 East Final.
It was the first year under new general manager and head coach Kent Austin and the team had overcome a lot just to make the post-season. With Tim Hortons Field under construction, the team was playing their home games in Guelph, practicing at McMaster and busing to their locker room at 1 Jarvis Street. After missing the playoffs altogether in 2012 – Burris’ first season with the club – the Ticats started with just one win in their first five games.
It was a tough season for Burris, too. Though he threw for nearly 5,000 yards, Austin and coordinator Tommy Condell utilized back-up quarterbacks Dan LeFevour and Jeremiah Masoli in certain offensive packages, something that didn’t sit well with Burris.
But a late season run capped by two remarkable wins over the Montreal Alouettes – including an East Semi-Final played in gale-force winds – punched Hamilton’s ticket to the Rogers Centre for a date with the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts.
It was supposed to be a home date for the Argonauts but the entire lower bowl behind the Ticats bench was a sea of Black and Gold – maybe 8,000 to 10,000 strong – and the throng was the first thing the players saw as they came running onto the field.
But Toronto stormed out to an early lead and Burris struggled to get the offence going. Hamilton trailed 24-10 just before halftime and it looked and felt like the team was all but done for.
Then Good Hank showed up.
Burris would complete 17 of his 21 pass attempts in the second half for 227 yards and two TDs – an 81 per cent completion rate – as the Ticats outscored their hosts 19-0 over the final 30 minutes and 26-0 over the final 32. Late in the game, nursing a six-point lead, Burris and the offence signaled the crowd to get loud, rallying the defence as they stopped Argonaut quarterback Ricky Ray on drive after drive.
As time wound down – the Ticats recovered a fumble for a touchdown on the last play of the game to seal it – Burris fell to his knees and pounded the turf in happiness. As the SkyDome emptied out, thousands of Ticat fans stayed and celebrated Hamilton’s first Grey Cup berth since 1999. After years of futility and frustration, it felt like a weight had been lifted.
There was to be no happy ending for Burris and the Ticats, though. Hamilton lost the championship game to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina, the enduring image a shocked Burris frozen in place as a snap sailed by. The Riders recovered and won 45-23. Just over two months later, Burris was released to make way for Zach Collaros.
Things got nasty after that. Burris slammed Austin during a press conference at the 2015 Grey Cup, citing a lack of respect and began to forward a narrative he’s repeated since: that he is somehow responsible for the Hamilton franchise’s resurrection (or even more ludicrously, helped get the stadium built.)
Well no, actually. After winning 15 games in four seasons between 2005 and 2008 – and just one in 2003 – the team’s renaissance began in 2009, the first of three straight playoff appearances that included a trip to the East Final the year before Burris arrived. The list of people responsible for that rebirth gets pretty long and includes names like Bob O’Billovich, Marcel Bellefeuille, Bob Young, Scott Mitchell, Kevin Glenn, Dave Stala, Jamall Johnson and Otis Floyd before we get around to Burris (if we get there at all.)
Which doesn’t diminish Burris’ legacy in any way: as Austin said last week, he’s a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and deservedly so. He just won a Grey Cup title in dramatic fashion, silenced his doubters – even the ones in Hamilton – and walks away a champion. That’s plenty.
In that context, the 2013 East Final win will be a footnote on his resume. But on that November day, Henry Burris helped return a long-suffering franchise to the promised land – and stuck it to the Argos in the process. It was the best day Henry Burris had as a Ticat and as he walks away from the game once and for all, it’s one worth remembering.