Henry Burris is making a return to the CFL, but he won’t be coming back to Canada to do it.
On Tuesday, the B.C. Lions announced the hiring of the Hall of Fame quarterback as an offensive consultant, a role that will allow him to work closely with second-year quarterback Nathan Rourke while staying put at his home in Chicago for most of the year.
It’s a concept that would have seemed entirely ludicrous just a few years ago, but in the post-COVID world, working from home in even the most hands-on of professions hardly makes anyone bat an eye.
“Even though I won’t be there except periodically during the regular season, I’ll still be here working from afar,” Burris told assembled media from across the country via the same platform where he’ll do most of his coaching.
“Watching film, looking at the things that we talked about, making sure I’m doing Zoom calls with the quarterbacks and talking about the things that we rehearsed during training camp.”
Unorthodox as the arrangement may be, do not mistake Burris’ virtual commute for a lack of commitment. Since he first broke into the professional ranks with the Calgary Stampeders in 1997, the legendary CFL quarterback has shown himself to be nothing if not all-in. Smilin’ Hank was a franchise changer who became imbedded in the communities where he played, but this time around there were some other people who he needed to make smile.
Two years ago, Burris transplanted his family from Ottawa to Chicago to chase his NFL coaching dream with the Bears. With two sons in school and his wife content with the city, he simply couldn’t uproot the family again.
“I’ve had my family going around all of North America, following me to play a game called football,” Burris explained. “I brought my wife from Temple to Calgary and Calgary all the way to Ottawa, now Ottawa to Chicago, and she was like, ‘Okay, our kids need some consistency in their life.'”
In the coaching profession, that is the only thing harder to come by than championships, as Burris knows well from the last few months. After beginning his coaching career with the Bears as part of the Bill Walsh diversity coaching fellowship program in 2020 training camp, the CFL legend earned himself a full-time gig as an offensive quality control coach and had his arrow pointing up in the organization. When the Bears fired head coach Matt Nagy following the 2021 season, all of that disappeared.
Out of a job with the rest of the staff, Burris had conversations with a number of NFL teams regarding potential opportunities and was in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine to meet with clubs late last month. When the last interested team went in another direction a few days ago, a return to the CFL under the tutelage of his former Redblacks head coach and close friend Rick Campbell was the obvious choice.
“There were a number of great teams who had a wealth of knowledge within their coaching staffs that I could have learned a lot from, but now I’m in even a much better situation where I can learn so much from a guy that made a huge impression on my career,” Burris said.
“To see him celebrate in 2016 after we won the Grey Cup, it still brings tears to my eyes. … I want to help him get back to that.”
The prior relationship between Campbell and Burris was a vital part of his decision to commit and it likely gave the Lions comfort in hiring a coach who will only be in-person for training camp. In the end, however, this hiring won’t be about a warm and fuzzy reunion. Like anything with the Lions these days, it’s all about Nathan Rourke.
In Burris, the team’s promising Canadian quarterback will find a mentor who’s done it all. In Rourke, Burris will have a proving ground for his ability to develop young passers, the coaching passion that he truly wants to pursue.
“I’ve got all this wealth of knowledge and I’ve got to hand it to somebody,” Burris laughed with his typical gap-toothed grin. “I’m getting old and I need to share all the things that I learned with somebody. I just want to see young men be excellent men off the field, but also have success on the field.”
His time in Chicago taught him much about the ins and outs of the coaching profession, but he never got a chance to be where he wanted to be: in the quarterback room, helping to develop first-round draft pick Justin Fields. A mobile, strong-armed quarterback, Burris saw himself in the Ohio State product and knows that down the road in Athens, OH, Rourke showed many of those same traits.
“Trust me, I wanted to be in that room to help out Justin, in many ways because a lot of the things that he’s done is what I was able to do during my career. I see a lot of that in Nathan as well,” Burris said.
“I see a lot of upside in him, just as I did a guy like Justin Fields. He’s a guy that you can rally around. He not only can make plays with his arm, but when he tucks the ball and runs, look out as well.”
While he won’t be in the actual quarterback room past training camp, Burris is focused on cultivating a supportive and open culture with all of his young charges, allowing them to take the next steps in their development on their own terms. The perspective he can offer based on his 17-years of CFL experience will be priceless to a position group that counts itself among the most inexperienced in league history and Rourke is primed to benefit.
“To me, the sky’s the limit for that kid, that kid has it all,” Burris raved. “The fact is that mentally, which is the most important part of being a successful quarterback, to me he’s on par with some of the best young guys that I’ve worked with that have eventually developed into some of the best of all time.”
After years of dwelling in the CFL basement, what Burris can get out of Rourke will determine the Lions’ success and potentially his own NFL future. Should he prove to be the quarterback guru he aspires to be, the shield will again come knocking. Whether he answers is a question for another time.
“The door’s never shut. You can never say that, because if the right opportunity comes about it’s hard to say no,” Burris admitted. “The thing is, right now, in my mind it is shut because I’m focused on helping the B.C. Lions become the best that they can be in 2022.”
The Hall of Famer will head to Vancouver at the end of this month for staff meetings and will return for training camp in Kamloops in May. The Lions certainly hope he has a hard time staying away.