Blood, sweat, and tears.
That’s the expectation of what football players are supposed to put into their sport and while the first two fluids are on display across your TV screen, too often the third is shed in silence.
While a growing amount of lip service is being paid to athlete mental health, few fans or media members are privy to the personal struggles that go on behind closed doors. Instead it is the men in the locker room who provide both the implicit and explicit support. An ear to listen. A shoulder to cry on. A smile and a joke to brighten a day.
That is a dynamic for which Bryan Burnham has a much deeper appreciation of than ever before. While the all-star receiver’s decision to sign a contract extension with the B.C. Lions on Friday was driven by his belief in the team’s potential, staying with the team last off-season despite what he describes as “miscommunication” between his camp and the club proved to be one of the most important choices he’s ever made.
“I was actually thinking about that a few days ago. What it would’ve been like had I been in another city in a different locker room with guys who didn’t really know me, what it would’ve been like to go through that,” Burnham told media members after his new deal was announced, shaking his head.
Earlier this month, the four-time CFL all-star shared on Instagram the difficult year he and his wife Aubrey experienced in 2021. After months of expensive treatments, the couple first discovered they were unable to conceive, before suffering a devastating ectopic pregnancy before Burnham had to leave for training camp.
Aubrey would come to visit her husband for a month early in the season and upon her return home, the couple celebrated another surprise pregnancy. But on the morning of the Lions’ trip to Toronto in Week 13, there was more horrific news. Aubrey had suffered a miscarriage and stuck thousands of miles away for the remainder of the season, Burnham felt helpless.
For years, he had supported young players going through tough times and always emphasized to them that they still had to perform on the field. Now it was his turn to walk that difficult talk.
“Football’s hard. Before I step on the field every day for practice or a game, I take a moment, I take a breath and I talk to myself. I speak my wife’s name, Aubrey, I love you so much, but right now I have to focus on this for these next two hours, three hours, whatever,” Burnham explained. “I need to be all in on this and then I can be sad afterwards.”
Still, it was difficult to keep pushing through as the emotional pain and late season injuries took their toll. Simply going to work was a massive undertaking.
“There were days where I didn’t want to do it, I just wanted to be at home. I wanted to go home and be with my wife. I’d pull into the parking lot in the morning and take a couple deep breaths and be like, ‘All right, here we go,'” Burnham recalled, before explaining how his teammates helped pull him out of it.
“I’d walk into the locker room, sad, upset, depressed, but then you see the first face, Mike Reilly or David Mackie, and instantly all that goes away for a little bit. It’s like, ‘I’m so happy to see you right now’ and that puts a smile on my face. Those are the kind of guys we have in the locker room. Sukh Chungh, that’s another guy that I just look at and I’m like man, I’m so happy to see you right now.”
While Burnham broke down and confided his situation to his veteran quarterback, the rest of his teammates didn’t know the depth of his struggles. It was by simply being themselves that they helped keep him afloat through a dark chapter in his life.
“Mike knew what I was going through, but nobody else really knew what I was going through. They have no idea how much they helped me get through it, just by being who they were, by being great teammates,” Burnham shared. “Being in the locker room, being around those guys was just a tremendous help for me to kind of get through that troubling time in my life.”
For those on the outside looking in, that level of love and brotherhood in sport can seem abstract, but it was on full display Friday. Minutes after Burnham’s thoughtful revelations, offensive lineman Andrew Peirson hijacked the media conference call from the Lions’ locker room.
Decked out in Burnham’s own jersey — several sizes too small for his 300-pound frame — he demanded to know if the receiver would be paying for the hogs’ lunches with his new contract and showed off a celebratory ice cream cake that they would be eating on Burnham’s behalf.
“Congratulations on being back, buddy. Can’t wait to see you again,” Peirson finished, as the assembled reporters lost any ability to maintain composure. “I’m keeping your jersey, by the way. It’s all sweaty and gross. I think it fits me pretty good, too. It fits my curves.”
Doubled over with laughter, Burnham indicated that this was exactly the type of thing he has talking about. Uncommon levity in even the most somber of moments.
Now on the other side of that dark chapter, Burnham believes that he and his wife are in a good place and stronger for the experience. On the field, it has cemented his belief in the Lions’ organizational culture.
Even with his chief confidante, Michael Reilly, now retired, Burnham believes this is a locker room poised to breakthrough the struggles of years past and finally return to relevance in the West Division.
“I think the core of this team is set up to make a run. I think the guys that we have in the locker room, they have that same passion and the drive that I do to put in the work,” Burnham insisted. “Obviously, we’ll see what comes in free agency, we need to add some pieces for sure, but I truly believe that we have the talent. We have the coaches and we have the culture to make a run for a Grey Cup.”
If he didn’t truly believe that, he wouldn’t have returned, no matter how special the locker room is.