With news coming out that the Ottawa Redblacks will recognize Henry Burris with a special halftime ceremony during this Saturday’s game against the Hamilton Ticats, a significant question naturally arises.
Should the Redblacks retire Burris’ number?
There’s certainly merit to both those would argue for and against it.
On one hand, jersey retirements are typically for those who have spent their entire (or at least the bulk of) their career with a single organization. That clearly isn’t the case in Ottawa, as only 47 of Burris’ 227 career starts came in the nation’s capital.
But Burris’ time in Ottawa goes far beyond the things he did on the field. With the relaunch of football in 2014, OSEG simply couldn’t afford to miss at the game’s most important position. Burris’ signing signalled to the league that the franchise was not merely content with bumbling along as a mediocre expansion team. Obviously there were growing pains but Burris took them stride, never throwing his coaching staff or teammates under the bus. To put it simply, he was a vital piece of the foundation of the franchise.
You also can’t overlook Burris’ role in attracting other players to Ottawa. There’s no way the Redblacks make back to back Grey Cup appearances in 2015/2016 without the class of free agents they signed in the 2015 off-season. Does GM Marcel Desjardins ink Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli, Chris Williams, Ernest Jackson, SirVincent Rogers and others without having a Hall of Famer under centre?
There’s also the community factor to take into account. In addition to his on the field work, Burris constantly worked to promote and grow the franchise in the community. As the face of the Redblacks, he took part in numerous charity events and always made time for small personal interactions with fans. Although winning the city’s 10th Grey Cup will always be his signature moment, for many in R-Nation it’s those brief chats and charity work that will stick in their mind.
— City of Ottawa (@ottawacity) September 6, 2017
But retiring a jersey is one of the greatest honours in all of sport. Throughout the CFL’s entire 105 year history, a select club of only 53 men have had their numbers retired. Ten of them played for Ottawa. Ron Stewart (#11), Russ Jackson (#12), Whit Tucker (#26), Bruno Bitkowski (#40), Jim Coode (#60), Moe Raccine (#62), Bobby Simpson (#70), Jerry Organ (#71), Tony Golab (#72) and Tony Gabriel (#77) all their numbers retired by the Ottawa Rough Riders. Does Burris’ #1 deserve to the eleventh?
Ignore his stats with the Redblacks (13,093 passing yards with 57 TDs & 39 INTS and 578 rushing yards with 16 TDs), ignore the community work and ignore bringing an expansion team to two Grey Cup appearances (one a narrow loss, the other an epic winning performance for the ages). What you’re left with is a QB who reminded a city that although times had changed, and although the team itself had changed, their winning tradition remained.
Burris rekindled Ottawa’s love affair with CFL football, restored a city’s pride and reminded its inhabitants that not only can football work and flourish in their hometown, but that even decades of despair, frustration and embarrassment can be wiped away with a moment of glory.
Honouring Burris by retiring his number wouldn’t diminish those who came before him in Ottawa’s 128 years of pro history. It would in fact, do the opposite, brining things full circle. It would firmly link Ottawa’s winning tradition with the modern organization.
At times, it feels like sports fans cling too tightly to the past, and judge the current era too harshly, failing to appreciate the greatness before them. Retiring Burris’ number would allow a younger generation of R-Nation to fully embrace their own first legendary player.
Given all the ground Burris has already broken with the Redblacks, it only makes sense.