/ FACES Magazine February 2017
Growing up in Ottawa, I loved the Ottawa Rough Riders. I was easily one of the biggest CFL fans at Holy Trinity High School in Kanata. I proudly wore a Rough Riders jersey to high school and made it to 7 or 8 home games a season. I remember lining up to meet kicker Dean Dorsey at the Kanata Town Centre. I remember winning a lunch with former QB Todd Dillon at Burger King. He must have been in the pits of hell sitting with a bunch of little kids, but it was a huge thrill to me at the time. I remember getting wide receiver Stephen Jones to sign my poster and putting it up proudly in my room. I will always cherish the Ottawa Rough Riders and Ottawa Renegades for the childhood memories they provided for my brother, my dad and me.
However, my memories of those years remain happier than most. 110 wins and 244 losses between 1980 and 2006 with a .310 winning percentage will do that for most. So will Mardi Gras in the stands, logo changes, ownership changes, bad teams and empty seats. We just could never seem to get it right. But on November 27, 2016 everything changed for me and every other long-suffering sports fan in this city. On that night, Henry Burris walked off the field as a hero for a new, long-suffering generation of football fans too young to remember Clements to Gabriel. His heroic performance in the Grey Cup erased all the painful memories Ottawa football fans have endured for 40 years. Suddenly, Ottawa was a city of champions and Burris became an icon.
The game would not have been won without the entire team playing an incredibly inspired performance against the heavily favoured Calgary Stampeders. The entire RedBlacks team deserves a tonne of credit for the incredible achievement they did together that night in Toronto. But we especially hope Henry Burris and Ernest Jackson are good friends off the field. In fact, we hope these two are best buddies. Because for the rest of their lives they will always be mentioned together, the same way that people speak of Tom Clements and Tony Gabriel.
You see, on November 27, 2016, Henry Burris took a giant 40-year old monkey off the back of the 1.2 million people that live in the National Capital Region when he threw the game winning touchdown pass to Ernest Jackson.
The Grey Cup Championship has brought our city together like never before in 40 years of football history, and Henry Burris has led this experience for all. Which makes it understandable that, when Burris announced his retirement late last month, the CFL community felt that they were losing a legend. Off the field, Henry remains a figure in the community, known for always being the personable and down-to-earth boy from the south that he his.
First of all, congratulations on winning arguably the most exciting Grey Cup game in CFL history. And thank you,on behalf of all the football fans in this city, for bringing us our first Grey Cup Championship in 40 long years. Can you describe what its been like for you guys in this city since winning the championship?
To be honest, it’s so hard to put it into words. It’s been amazing, awesome and just unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. But maybe those words don’t properly explain it; so let me give you an example. We were just visiting a school the other day and some of the faculty members—teachers who were young kids the last time Ottawa won a Grey Cup—were coming up to us and you could just feel their passion, feel their excitement. When they held the Grey Cup, it was awesome seeing the looks on their faces and how happy they were. It is such an awesome, emotional experience to get to share this with the city of Ottawa. It’s really a blessing and I’m so grateful that I get to do these things and enjoy it with so many amazing people.
What are some of your favourite memories so far with the Grey Cup?
I would say getting to bring the Cup to places like the Ottawa Heart Institute and CHEO. Getting to meet people who are going through difficult, emotionally challenging times, and to see their faces light up when they see the Grey Cup. Just seeing how happy it makes them... I will never forget moments like that. Also, seeing the emotions all around the city—from the parade to the experiences I’ve had meeting new people—it’s just been incredible. It really sums up what this championship is all about, that this is bigger than any of us. All the hard work that we put into it, to win it for a city that truly deserved a championship for a long time. I think the entire team truly understands what kind of impact it had, and it feels so great to have been a part of bringing the Grey Cup back to Ottawa.
During the Grey Cup warm-ups, you were injured and it was speculated on the broadcast that you might not be able to play. Can you tell us a little about what happened—what was going through your mind when it happened—and was there really a chance you were not going to play that day?
Oh there was a huge possibility that I was not going to play. A piece of my cartilage basically flipped up on me and it was catching as I was straightening out my leg. At the time I felt a pop, burning and my leg gave away. My leg kept clicking and clicking and every time it clicked, I would feel the pain. I couldn’t push off of it and couldn’t drop back to pass. It freaked me out for that to happen at that exact moment, in the biggest game of my life. When I described the injury to the head therapist, he was as confused as I was. For all of the things that could have happened, this was one of the worst-case scenarios. Thankfully, I had a great staff that came together quickly with a game plan to get me quickly onto the field. I definitely needed some pain killers to get me through the game, but I remember saying “I don’t care if I have to take these for the rest of my life, just get me into this game!”. Once the painkillers kicked in, I felt a truck could have hit me and I wouldn’t have felt a thing (laughs).
I was really excited about the job the trainers did, they all deserve so much credit and it really paid off for me. I can’t thank them all enough for what they did that day.
You threw the game winning TD pass to Ernest Jackson in overtime. What are some of your memories of that play? How does it feel to know that it is a play that will forever be immortalized in this city the way that the Tom Clements to Tony Gabriel 1976 Cup winning catch has been?
Honestly, that play happened so fast. I couldn’t even see it because I had these tall offensive and defensive linemen in my face impairing my vision. But I saw the ball just bounce in his hands and I thought we were about to kick a field goal. A split second later, I hear the entire stadium going bananas and I see E Jacks fall into the end zone! I’m thinking “Oh my gosh, did that actually just happen?” To be honest, I didn’t have time to think of the impact of the catch. I remember just thinking we needed to go for 2 points. For me, I just snapped back into focus right after he caught it. However, looking back at it now—watching it on TV—it makes me laugh because only Ernest Jackson would catch that ball. The most important catch of his life, bobbled all the way to the end zone. He almost gave us all a heart attack! (laughs)
Is this Grey Cup win more special to you than your other victories? If so, what makes this victory special for you personally?
I think this one was special for me because of the impact that it had on this city. The challenge for us coming to Ottawa was that we were taking over a franchise that never existed and basically creating a brand new identity. When you build a team, it’s usually about finding the right players and working from the bottom up. It usually takes a long time to accomplish that task, but we found ourselves in the Grey Cup final in year 2 and Grey Cup champions in year 3. It doesn’t usually happen that way, which is part of what makes it so special. I know other teams wonder if they can model after how we did it and win in 3 years. Trust me, it is a dream to be able to do it the way we did it. I will never forget this and how fortunate I was to be a part of it all.
Tell us a little about your relationship with Trevor Harris, who was excellent when you were out with an injury. You two seem to have a great relationship, which is not always the case when there are two very talented quarterbacks who could easily be starters on other teams? What makes your relationship work so well?
Trevor is such a great guy. I think that is one of the biggest catalysts that makes our relationship work so well. When you have a good guy like Trevor—a truly good-natured person—it makes it so easy. We have always had the utmost respect for each other. I remember when he came into the league we always had a mutual respect when we played against each other. When he joined the team, we had an agreement that we were going to push each other hard and make each other better. We really made sure to protect our friendship and grow our relationship. Not just between us as players, but between our families too. It was so important that we developed that relationship to make sure that we had each other’s back throughout the season.
When we last spoke to you, it was prior to the start of the 2014 season, the inaugural season for the RedBlacks. The 2014 season was a rough one as expected for an expansion team—but what were some key things you learned from that season about your team and the city of Ottawa?
The best thing that came out of that 2-16 expansion season was realizing just how special a city Ottawa was. I learned what an honour it was to play football in a market like this. I learned more about the tradition and history. To put on that RedBlacks uniform, I was not only representing the RedBlacks, I was representing the Rough Riders and the Renegades and all the men who gave us the opportunity to be here by wearing these uniforms before us. I have so much respect for the history and tradition in this city. Looking up in the stands, despite of our record being 2-16 , we still sold out every game. To me, that was the number one example of the kind of amazing fans we have in this city. In a lot of places, if a team struggled the way we did, they would lose a lot of people from the stands, but not in Ottawa. They have stood by us all the way since day one. I think this incredible fan loyalty is what makes Ottawa one of , if not the most, coveted places to play in the CFL right now. It’s a place that everyone wants to come to experience this atmosphere on a daily basis.
We had the opportunity to do a Christmas sweater photoshoot with some of your teammates—Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopli and Moton Hopkins. All of them were really good guys, and a lot of fun to be around. Can you tell us a little about all of your teammates? How important are they to you on and off the field?
When you play sports, you usually have to deal with a few egos in the locker room. However, this team here did an amazing job not only of bringing in great football players, but also guys with great character. Whether we were 2-16 or winning the Grey Cup, when you walk into our locker room it is always upbeat and professional. We have built great relationships, and great friendships that will last forever. This really is something that doesn’t happen in every locker room you play in. Our locker room kept us stronger and it’s what made it hard for me to walk away from this game. It is the one thing that you take with you that you miss most about the game – the locker room.
Who is the funniest guy on the team?
I’d say Ernest Jackson. He’s got so many different nicknames and he’s just crazy (laughs). I mean, for the guy who catches the most important pass and bobbles it all the way to the end zone, it just shows you how the man loves to live life on the edge and how much of a coin flip he is. You never know what you’re going to get from him. He’s either going to give you a heart attack or he’s going to make you laugh. I mean, he probably managed to almost give the city of Ottawa a heart attack with that Grey Cup catch, that’s for sure.
Who are the best and worst dressers on the Ottawa RedBlacks?
Trevor Harris is 100% the worst dressed player on the team (laughs). The best dressed guys... hmm… I would go with Greg Ellingson and Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. I would say those two boys are the best of the bunch. But Trevor Harris is the worst dressed, and he really needs to step it up (laughs).
What accomplishment in your life are you most proud of to date?
I would say getting married is my greatest accomplishment. I think it’s the hardest thing in the world to find that significant other that you can just share so much in common with. To have each other’s backs unconditionally—to have such insight into each other—it really is a special thing in life that I’m very blessed to have. I’m so very proud of marrying my wife.
Tell us a little about the importance that your family has played in your success?
First of all, I’m nothing without my family. In life, you learn so many things. You make mistakes, but when you have a family, and when you have kids it changes you. You have people that rely on you to teach them to do things the right way. It helps you to put your own life into perspective, and it helps you to hold yourself accountable. You want to live your life the right way to set a good example for your family. To have a family that I can share special moments with is what makes everything so worthwhile. Football has been great to me. I’ve been blessed to have a long career. However, what made this year the best experience was my family. My wife supported me all the way and my kids were both old enough to enjoy it with me. It really was the best moment I’ll ever have as a person and a father.
On the field, you’re a 3-time Grey Cup Champion, 2-time CFL Most Outstanding Player and 2-time Grey Cup MVP. You are one of the greatest quarterbacks to every play in the CFL. You brought our city—one that was starving for a Championship—our first Grey Cup in 40 years. You’ve got an incredible resume and are easily a Hall of Famer as soon as you step off the field. Now, we want to learn a little about Henry Burris off the field. Let’s start with music: what’s on your playlist right now?
This may shock a few people, but I’m actually a big EDM guy. I mean, I’m kind of a hybrid. I also enjoy some R+B and hip hop, but hip hop today is going in a little different direction than what I’m used to. I mean, I still like Drake, J Cole and a few others, but when it comes to music that I’m playing all the time, I’m really into EDM and progressive house.
I like listening to artists like Nora En Pure, EDX and Deadmau5. I just like the really chill, good stuff that you can get in your car and ride to, or sit in a hammock and enjoy or get you pumped up before a game. I think EDM really covers all of those categories and moods.
How would you describe your fashion style?
You know what, I just wear whatevermy wife tells me to wear (laughs). She grew up in the fashion scene and has worked in the fashion world, so I just listen to what she says. But for me, the tough thing is that my proportions are different than most people. I have long arms and wide shoulders, so it’s different for me to go buy things off the rack. I really can’t name too many brands because most of what I get now is custom made, because my measurements are all over the place (laughs).
Valentine’s Day is coming up, so lets talk a little romance with you.
What would be the signature dish that Chef Henry Burris would make for a romantic dinner at home?
Ah man, I love cooking. I would go all out for my wife on Valentine’s Day (laughs). I would start off with a little duck prosciutto along with some sushi and salad, and I’d probably fry up some calamari. Hmm, maybe I’d boil up some lobster with a little sweet potato with bok choy or broccoli to go with it—something nice and green on the side. Then I would make a nice cheesecake or a crème brûlée for dessert.
Speaking of your wife, how did you meet her? Was it love at first sight? Or did you have to work a little to win her over?
(Laughs) Well, it was love at first sight for me, but I can’t speak for her! I met my wife at Temple University. She was an All-American outdoor field lacrosse player. Not a lot of black women played field lacrosse at that time, and I didn’t even know what it was back then (laughs). It just wasn’t really a popular sport in the southern US at that time, it’s much more popular there now. But yes, I was in love with her at first sight and I knew I just had to get to know her when I saw her. But oh boy I had some work to do because there was some competition (laughs). I just figured I’d be the guy that I am, plant a few seeds here and there and, over time, she would come around because I pretty much became her biggest groupie (laughs). I think I just wanted her to know I would always have her back. As I got to know her, I knew this wasn’t just a one year thing, but that this was a franchise player and I wanted to sign her to a lifetime contract (laughs). Luckily enough, we always stayed friends and kept in touch. Fast-forward to now and we’ve been married for 13 years and have two amazing young boys.
You drive a nice pick-up truck. Have you always been a truck guy? Tell us about the first car you’ve ever bought.
My first car was a 1995 Saab Coup Hatchback, I felt like I was rolling (laughs)! But now I’m a pick-up truck guy. I go over and see everyone at Myers in town all the time. I’m a GMC guy till I die. Pick-up trucks are part of what my family upbringing was all about. My father and uncle worked for GMC, so I’ll always be affiliated with them and that is always where my heart has been.
You recently announced that you’re retiring, and in the most storybook way possible as Grey Cup Champion and MVP. A lot of fans around the city are disappointed to see you retire, but happy for you that you seem so at peace with the decision. Have you had a chance to think what the next step is for you? Is there a career path that interests you?
I would definitely say media. I’ve had the opportunity to do some internship work during the off-season with CTV Morning Live and I’ve also done some work with TSN in the past. I love it and enjoyed both. Media is most definitely something
I would love to work in moving ahead. It’s nice to know that when you make a mistake on TV you don’t get booed by millions of people (laughs) and I don’t have a 300lbs guy trying to beat me up. I also get more time at home as well, so you really can’t beat that!
You are a role model to many in our city for how successful
you’ve been on the field, and for the class and professionalism
you exhibit off of it. What would you say is the most important piece of advice you’ve ever been given, or that you could
give, to any young athlete reading this who aspires to be like you?
The most important piece of advice I’ve ever received is the one I would give now. My father taught me to always treat others the way you would want to be treated. He said that what you invest into something is what you get out of it. Work hard and it will
pay off. This has always had a lot of meaning to me.
Another piece of advice is the 5 people rule—the belief that you become a mixture of the 5 people you spend the most time with, so you must choose wisely. That quote enters into the same realm as investing into your future. I always try to be the same person to everyone that I meet. I try to treat people with respect and try to be nice to people. You have one hand for hard work and the other for giving back. I really believe that and I always try to live life that way.
Thanks Henry and congratulations on an amazing career. Thanks for all you’ve done for football in our country and especially in the city of Ottawa.
Thank you, it was a pleasure to play here. I love the city of Ottawa and I can’t thank the people here enough for making me and my family feel part of this amazing city.