Bryan Burnham leaves lasting Lions legacy in pursuit of greatness as a father

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/B.C. Lions

Bryan Burnham made peace with the idea of his retirement long before any of his teammates did.

The B.C. Lions’ longest-serving offensive player entered the 2022 season knowing full well that it would be his last, information that he revealed to only a select few in the receivers’ room. At 32 years old and still in his prime, the revelation elicited denial and bargaining from his fellow pass-catchers — well-established parts of the stages of grief.

How could he leave with so much left to accomplish? Surely, Burnham would change his mind.

Still, those who didn’t know that the decision was already made had their suspicions as well. As Nathan Rourke battled back from a Lisfranc sprain in record time, risking his health and an NFL future in the process, it seemed that the young quarterback had taken it upon himself to try and finally win a championship for his veteran receiver.

In the end, the final image of both players seared into the minds of Lions fans will be their tearful embrace after the West Final loss in Winnipeg. A first-year starter bound for greater things sobbing on the shoulder of a stoic legend who never got what he deserved.

“I told him that he gave this last season of my career meaning and that he was an inspiration to me. I think that’s kind of where all the emotion came from,” Burnham recalled during his farewell press conference on Tuesday.

“Obviously, we were upset that we lost the game but in that moment, when it was all said and done and it was official, he felt disappointed. He felt like he had let me down. I know he told me that he wanted to send me out a champion, but I just told him he’s got nothing to be sorry for.”

“Again, he gave this last season of my career meaning and I can’t wait to tell the kids when we’re watching him on Sundays soon that I played with that guy.”

It is that very conversation — not the one had with an emotional Rourke on a frosted field, but rather the one he plans to have about him while sitting in front of a flatscreen — that prompted Burnham to finally step away from the game that has dominated his life since he was 12 years old.

Even more than he desired that elusive Grey Cup ring, the receiver wanted to be a father. After last season, Burham spoke openly about the mental hardship he experienced when his wife suffered a miscarriage in 2021 and the pair found out they were unable to conceive. More than three thousand kilometres away from his partner during one of the darkest chapters of their lives, he felt helpless to assist her.

This past offseason, the couple made the jump into parenthood and welcomed three foster children into their lives, siblings aged two, three and five. It was a life-changing moment for Burnham that made leaving his home in Tulsa, Okla. to play in Canada more difficult than ever before. The sacrifices he had long accepted as part of his chosen profession no longer seemed worth it.

“I remember the day the little men came to us. I was scared. I was so scared. It was, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this.’ But I don’t think you’re ever really ready, you’ve just got to dive in,” he said with a smile. “The second I saw them I was just overwhelmed with happiness. To leave, that was my biggest pain this year, was walking out of the door in May to leave for training camp. That was tough. I told myself that I don’t want to feel that pain anymore.”

Injuries limited Burnham to just nine regular-season games in his farewell tour, but a few busted ribs, a punctured lung, and a broken wrist were barely scratches compared to the hurt inflicted by being away from his loved ones. Physically, he knows he can still be one of the best in the CFL but his heart wants something more.

And so, Burnham departs Vancouver after eight seasons in characteristic fashion, with all the humility, maturity, and leadership that made him a fan favourite. In a position so often defined by ego and bravado, he made bigger plays than anyone while also making far less noise. He earned targets rather than demanded them and rewarded every quarterback who threw his way with catches that defied physics and boggled the imagination.

Despite the toe-tapping miracles and one-handed acrobatics, there are some around the CFL who never fully grew to appreciate Burnham for what he was. They questioned his status as a number-one receiver, seeing instead a player with average athletic traits who relied on unlikely catches because of a failure to separate. It simply couldn’t be sustainable.

Yet, Burnham never hit the wall as his critics predicted. From 2016 to 2019, he posted four straight thousand-yard seasons. He would have had another in 2021 if not for the shortened schedule, coming up just 35 yards shy in four fewer games. Even in an injury-ravaged 2022 campaign, Burnham put up 565 yards in nine games, well above a thousand-yard pace.

He sits fourth in the franchise history in both receptions and receiving yards but somehow that seems to undersell his importance. In a tumultuous era of Lions’ history, Burnham was the one constant, catching touchdowns from seven different quarterbacks. When B.C. football was hard to watch, he and his highlight reel grabs were still must-see TV.

Experiencing that degree of success while playing for a string of bad teams might have made other players big-headed, resentful, or aloof. Instead, Burnham never lacked a smile and built lasting relationships around the organization. He always stayed grounded, never more so than when he decided to leave on his own terms.

“Every day running into the parking lot to the practice facility, I would take a slow walk to the door and just kind of look around and take it all in. I’d get to the door and just take a deep breath and tell myself to go make the most of this day,” the future Ring of Honour selection said of his final season, noting that not even the team’s playoff defeat could sour it.

“As much as it hurt to lose that game being so close to the Grey Cup, I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to my career because it was real Canadian football. It was cold. It was snowing. It was loud. Man, I enjoyed it, I really did. And I just wanted to sit there at the end and really take it all in one last time.”

Burnham leaves a legacy in Vancouver that transcends yardage and overcomes a lack of championship rings, an imprint left on fans and teammates that will last long after he finds himself happily driven mad by Peppa Pig re-runs.

While he speaks glowingly of the relationships built in the receiving room this past year, it was he who provided the steady hand and veteran presence necessary for success. He taught a master class on how to be a professional every day by example and lifted kindred spirits to new heights with his work ethic.

As Dominique Rhymes, Lucky Whitehead, Keon Hatcher, Alexander Hollins and others continue to blossom going forward, Burnham will be owed a share of that success.

“It’s hard because it’s one of those things where you don’t want them to do too good because you want them to miss you a little bit, but I don’t think they’re gonna miss me very much,” he laughed. “In terms of my play on the field, I think they’re going to be just fine.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.