On Hank, Hamilton, and why Ticats fans turned on him

I used to be a big Henry Burris fan.

Back in his Calgary days, I loved watching Burris play. He had a big arm, could scramble, and was just generally a very entertaining player to watch, like a CFL version of Michael Vick or Randall Cunningham.

So when news broke in December 2011 that Burris was likely on his way to Hamilton, I was somewhat happy, but not ecstatic. See, while I liked Burris, I liked another QB even more: Kevin Glenn. The addition of Burris meant the departure of Glenn, and having seen Burris regress significantly in the 2011 season, I was less than thrilled that the Ticats would be adding Burris. But the trade was made in early January and Henry Burris was now a Hamilton Tiger-Cat.

The start of the Burris Era in Hamilton was rocky. Despite incredible individual numbers — he set single-season team records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2012 — the Ticats fell to 6-12 and missed the playoffs a year after getting to the East Final. That 2012 season marks the only time between 2009 and 2016 that the Ticats missed the playoffs. The poor record led the to the firing of head coach and director of football operations George Cortez and the hiring of his replacement, Kent Austin. Burris was a Cortez guy, no doubt. The two had worked together in Calgary, and it was Cortez, as offensive coordinator, who teamed with Burris to get him his one and only championship as a starting quarterback in 2008. Cortez was a big Burris backer and many thought the deal to bring Burris to Hamilton was one of the conditions of Cortez taking the Ticats job after years of being rumoured to take over a CFL team and never doing it. But after one year, Cortez was out and Austin was in.

Burris’ numbers dipped under Austin in 2013. He still led the league in passing yards, but is passing touchdowns dropped from 43 to 25, and many times Austin would employ other quarterbacks — mostly Dan LeFevour, but later in the year, Jeremiah Masoli — in certain situations. It was the unveiling of the “Masoli package” that flummoxed the Montreal Alouettes in an Oct. 26 game that gave the Ticats the edge they needed to secure a home playoff game in Austin’s first year at the helm. In that playoff game, Austin made liberal use of LeFevour and it was the backup quarterback, not Burris, who ran in the winning score in overtime to take the Ticats to the East Final.

To give Burris credit, he was excellent in Hamilton’s defeat of the Toronto Argonauts a week later in the 2013 East Final. In what was probably his best game a s Ticat, Burris went 27 of 40 for 371 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for 51 yards on five carries. Dan LeFevour, the hero the week before, barely saw the field, as Burris took this game over in the second half. Hamilton’s defense was stout, but it was the Burris-led offence’s ability to sustain drives — Hamilton won the time of possession battle by over 15 minutes — that helped secure Hamilton’s first Grey Cup berth since 1999.

The blowout loss the following week to the Roughriders in the Grey Cup couldn’t dampen what occurred in Toronto on that faithful afternoon. Hamilton was back in the big game and the city was ecstatic.

***

Hamilton has a reputation as a blue-collar town that was forged over years of being just that. The city got the “Steeltown” nickname for a reason. While that moniker doesn’t really fit any longer, many look at Hamilton they same way they did 20 or 30 years ago.

But Hamilton has changed a lot in the last two decades. The downtown area, once deserted, is starting to become a hot spot for the always desirable millennial crowd. Restaurants are springing up left and right; James Street North has been host to the incredibly successful Supercrawl event since 2009; the old cinema at Jackson Square has been upgraded and may be, in my personal opinion, the best cinema in the city; and Locke Street has many excellent shops and restaurants for people to enjoy. Hamilton has undergone some major changes, and while the blue-collar mentality many of us in the city grew up with is still present, it is no longer the sole characteristic of the people and the city.

One area that has never really changed, however, is the fiercely loyal nature of Hamilton’s football community. Unless they sign in Toronto, most Ticats fans will still cheer for players who leave the team. Bakari Grant, who left Hamilton after five seasons with the Ticats and signed with the Calgary Stampeders last February, remains a popular players amongst fans. Many Ticats were cheering for the Stamps in the Grey Cup last year simply to see Grant finally win a championship. It is that type of loyalty to players that the community grows attached to that shows how devoted Hamiltontonians can be. Henry Burris could have enjoyed that same loyalty. He never would have joined the hallowed pantheon of players like Mosca, McManus and Montfor, but he could have slid nicely into that second tier of Ticats greats. But Burris did something that will ensure most Ticats fans will always take a negative view of him: he slagged the team they love.

***




After the 2013 season, the Ticats opted to go in a different direction at quarterback. The team signed Argos backup Zach Collaros to be the new starting quarterback after the Cincinnati product showed he had all the tools to be a viable starter in the league while filling in for an injured Ricky Ray during the 2013 season. With Burris about to hit free agency, the Ticats released him, which allowed him to explore his options early. Those options landed him in Ottawa with the expansion Redblacks.

His first season in Ottawa was nothing short of a disaster. Despite changes to the expansion draft rules — rules that were supposed to make it easier for the Redblacks to compete immediately — the third Ottawa CFL team finished their inaugural season a dismal 2-16. The Redblacks were the free square on the league’s bingo card and Burris himself had a less than stellar first campaign in the nation’s capital. Despite starting all 18 games in 2014, Hank threw for under 4,000 yards for just the second time in his career and his 11 touchdown passes were half as many as his next lowest single-season total (22, in 2009). Under any metric, it was a horrible season for the team and for Burris.

And Burris, for the most part, kept his cool about it. No rants of any sort, no calling anyone out. It is almost like that putrid season humbled him a little. But then Ottawa spent a lot money in the offseason and the team got better. A lot better. And as Ottawa started winning, Burris started talking.

***

Tina Swayze is a diehard Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan. If you know her, you know she is very blunt and she did not mince words when I asked for her feelings on Burris.

“He comes off as a self-centred whiner whose ego is out of control,” she said, “and it is laughable that he is now taking credit for the ‘winning ways’ in Calgary with names like Dickenson, Flutie and Garcia (to name a few) ahead of him.”

This all fits with the narrative around Hank the last couple of years where he would constantly put himself front and centre. Hank’s continued insistence that it was all him rubs people the wrong way, and Tina is one of those people.

“I always found Hank’s attitude a little over the top and thought he was a bit of an egomaniac, but when he came [to Hamilton] I cheered for him because he was a Ticat,” she said about her feelings when Hank was here.“He has accomplished so much, but his behaviour makes it very difficult to celebrate his success.”

***

Burris’ ego seemed to take full control the last two seasons. Ottawa won the division in 2015 with a 12-6 record and got to the Grey Cup in just their second season, a feat their Ottawa predecessor, the Renegades, never came close to accomplishing in their four years in the league. Burris was named the league’s MOP and he just couldn’t help by try to stick it to the Ticats and, it seems, Kent Austin in particular.

The decline of Burris’ reputation in Hamilton began a little earlier that season, when after a hit by Simoni Lawrence, the Redblacks signal caller used an interview with TSN to call out the Ticats linebacker.

“There’s no place for people like that in this game,” Burris told TSN’s Matthew Scianitti.

Burris continued to show his anger after the game when he told reporters that “people like [Lawrence] shouldn’t be playing the game.”

Simoni Lawrence is one of the most well-liked current Hamilton Tiger-Cats players, and when Burris went at him the Ticats faithful backed up Lawrence. It was only the beginning.

After the Redblacks beat the Ticats to secure their spot in the Grey Cup, Burris used the week leading up to the biggest game of the season to unload on the team, and Austin specifically.

He said he “wasn’t Kent’s guy” and that there was a level of respect between Burris and then-Ottawa offensive coordinator Jason Maas that apparently wasn’t there between Burris and Austin.

These latest rants got the fans even more up in arms, with many who still backed Burris saying this was the last straw. This was the final salvo in the Burris-Austin war in 2015, but it would not be the last time Burris would use a large platform to call out the Ticats.

***

Claudio Raposo is one of the craziest Ticats fans you will ever meet, and I mean that in the best way possible. He is one of the guys that sits behind the away team bench in full black and gold regalia, including face paint, and spends the entire game chirping at opposing players. He usually gets a great response from opposing players due to his clever signs — he once had Chad Owens, then with the Argos, pose for a photo with a sign that read “BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY” — so he was someone who I was interested in speaking with about Hank. Claudio might be a Ticats diehard, but he is also someone who appreciates and respects the other eight teams and their players. His chirping is all in good fun, but when Hank is brought up, he turns serious.

“The first sour moment came when he barked at Simoni. He didn’t need to whine and call out a former teammate. As Ottawa seemed to be a legit team in 2015, Hank began building that chip. The shots at Simoni, then at Austin, the constant chirping during the 2015 Grey Cup, the shots he took at the organization, the team, etc. That wasn’t the Hank I knew, but but it was the Hank I was warned about,” said Claudio.

The Hank he knew and the Hank he was warned about were two different people. Claudio attends many practices and that allowed him to forge a relationship with Burris in a way many fans do not. He believed in Hank.

“When he was in Hamilton, myself and my group of friends became really close with Henry,” he says. “Henry was always someone you could talk to, someone you could ask a question to and get an honest answer. [In 2013] he said he was ‘bringing the Cup home for us’ and I truly believed him. He was the guy to lead this team. He was the hero, the legend.”

Despite all his faith, there was a sense that this would all go away. Constant chatter on social media from fans in Calgary warned Claudio of what was to come.

“I heard a ton about his attitude [in Calgary]; the burning of many bridges; the respect, but scorn, of an entire fanbase. I always ignored it, thinking, ‘the Henry I know wouldn’t be like that.’”

But following the loss in the Grey Cup last year to Edmonton, Claudio saw the Hank he had been warned about.

“He became the league whiner. When they lost [the 2015 Grey Cup to Edmonton], that post-game interview was all about him.”

It seemed as if that was the tipping point for Claudio.

“I really believe that the ‘haters’ he was talking about wouldn’t be there if Hank had just shut his mouth and not tried to fabricate that chip on his shoulder.”

***

“So for all the people talking junk out there, you can take that and shove it.”

The 2016 season was a rough one for Burris. He started off hot in the first half in Edmonton in Week 1, but got hurt and watched as Trevor Harris came in and lit the world on fire. Harris was playing like the QB we saw for most of the time in Toronto in 2015, until his own injury forced him out of the lineup. Burris was able to take command on the offense again, and once again did so with a chip on his shoulder.

Burris told his supposed haters at TSN to shove it. This got the ire of many, as Hank once again made it all about himself. He extolled his virtues and not that of his team. It was another public display that Hank is all about Hank.

That infamous rant is also where Hank (falsely) proclaimed to have turned around four teams in the CFL: Saskatchewan, Calgary, Hamilton and Ottawa. The whole thing turned off pretty much everyone outside of the Ottawa region who may have still held a glimmer of respect for Burris. Burris was benched for Harris later in the season, but got his job back again when Harris underperformed.

The East Division was terrible in 2016, with Ottawa being the best of a bad bunch and winning the division with an 8-9-1 record, the first team in CFL history to win a division with an under-.500 record. The Redblacks dispatched of the Edmonton Eskimos in the East Final to get back to the Grey Cup and face the heavily favoured Calgary Stampeders.

Before the game could even begin, drama. Burris appears to injury his knee in warmups and word going around is he might not play. But just as the ball is ready to be kicked, Burris emerges from the tunnel — in what he called his “Willis Reed moment” which, like giving yourself a nickname, is something one should not do themselves — and is ready to go. The fact that some thought Burris milked the injury for maximum drama says all you need to know about how people think of him now.

But the game begins and Burris has the game of his life, the Redblacks pull off maybe the biggest upset in CFL history, Burris gets his second championship as a starting quarterback and is rightfully named the game’s MVP. He then uses his time at the microphone to rip into the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (and possibly the Winnipeg Blue Bombers).

“To all those haters out there, their organizations haven’t won a Grey Cup in decades,” Burris says to TSN’s James Duthie after being named the game’s MVP.

It was a clear shot against the Ticats, who have not won since 1999, and possibly one against Milt Stegall, who never won a championship during his long career with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and was a critic of Hank’s following his “shove it” rant earlier in the year. The Bombers hold the CFL’s longest championship drought, having not won a title since 1990.

Burris had a chance to take the high road and didn’t. Instead he used his moment to once again air his grievances. In what turned out to be the final moments of his career, Burris is not happy he won, but happy that he can shove his success in someone’s face.

When I think of Burris and this year, it takes me back to just last February when another quarterback took the final snaps of his illustrious career and capped it off with a championship. I am, of course, talking about Peyton Manning. Manning and Burris also share something else in common and that is being replaced by their previous teams for a younger player. What they don’t share in common, however, is how they handled their respective exits.

Manning never once ripped the Indianapolis organization for releasing him and never once publicly made disparaging statements about the Colts or anyone in the organization. Even after having immense success — success that almost mirrors Burris’ in Ottawa — Manning always took the high road. In his four years with the Broncos, Manning won a league MVP and made two trips to the Super Bowl, winning it last year. He also set the NFL single-season record for passing yards and passing touchdowns while in Denver. Never once did you hear Manning say anything bad about Indianapolis. When he had his final moment on the podium after winning Super Bowl 50, Manning did not use his time at the microphone to tell Indianapolis what a mistake they made letting him go. He took the high road, and set an example that Burris should have followed, but didn’t.

Hank won. Period. He got his championship and cemented himself as one of the best this league has ever seen. But he did so while further almost every bridge he had left.

***

Jeff Majerly is one of the more levelheaded Ticats fans you will find. He is very rational and rarely lets bias dictate his feelings. When it comes to Henry Burris, Jeff had a lot to say.

“Henry Burris is one of the greatest CFL quarterbacks of all time and I don’t believe there is anyone who can formulate an argument that could sufficiently dispute that.”

While many view fan bases as a singular collective, Jeff’s point of view shows that not every fan of a team drinks the same “Kool-Aid.” But even a man known for his rational opinions reaches a tipping point.

“He was in my top three favourite CFL players and my high regard for him is why I was so disappointed in his comments about his time in Hamilton. I never joined in the “Heeeeeeeeen-ry” chants, and I got over it and moved on, though I do so with a significant amount of my respect for him absent.”

But it is not anger that Jeff feels towards Burris, but sadness.

“I don’t feel any bitterness towards Henry at all. I feel sad for him. People will defend him and tell you that it is the chip on his shoulder that drives him and leads him to success, but what they fail to acknowledge is that one cannot simply turn those feelings on and off when it suits them. He lives with those thoughts and feelings every day, whether it is football related or not.”

Jeff hopes that one day Hank can look back on his career and flash that trademark smile and think of all the good things in his career and forget the bad.

“It is said that the greatest revenge is living well. I hope that one day Henry can look back on his amazing career and truly appreciate it with a touch of humility and without having to add his comments about feeling disrespected.”

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