Interview by Jordan Haworth
Henry Burris is a Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Temple University Hall of Fame inductee, as well as one of the most impressive quarterbacks to play in the CFL. Born in Spiro, Oklahoma, Burris attended Temple University on a sports scholarship where the star attained second place in all-time passing yards for the Eastern Conference and broke 20 school records. He was then drafted into the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders, where he would play for 10 years between stints in the NFL. Burris was signed to the new Ottawa Redblacks after leading former teams to two championships and several Grey Cup appearances, and led the green Ottawa team to a championship win in 2016, marking his third Grey Cup ring. After winning All-Star nine times, Burris retired from the field to work as a TSN sports analyst and CTV Morning Live host. For his latest endeavour, he’s returning to the world of football under the Chicago Bears’ coaching staff on a temporary basis. Burris lives with his wife and two sons in Ottawa, and enjoys dedicating his free time to Big Brothers Big Sisters through their SMILE program.
How is training camp going so far?
It’s been great. I’m learning so much, and working with great people. I’m enjoying being back in the culture of football; being around players and seeing the schematics. All the detail that goes into preparation for these camps and – probably even more so this year with COVID going on – all the different guidelines and mandates that are being handed down on a daily and hourly basis is a lot.
Honestly, I didn’t anticipate getting into coaching this early. But it’s one of those things where, when the goals that you have for your life step up front and center, you have to be ready to take them on. Right now is the perfect time for me to be making this move. I’m very thankful to get this opportunity from Chicago.
Right now it’s more of an internship and, technically, I’m going into week two for myself today. I’m learning a lot of things pretty quickly and hopefully, I can make a true impression before this internship is completed.
You said that you were a bit surprised that coaching came this early, but you’ve just been inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Why are you surprised that it came so soon?
Well, originally when I retired, I actually did talk to a couple of teams about getting into coaching, and even years after coaching each season, whether it was a CFL season, college football in the States, NFL; I had teams who inquired if I would be interested in coaching. People would always say to me ‘man, you’ll be a great coach one day.’ But for me, more importantly, I wanted to take some time with my family. CTV Morning Live and working with TSN 1200, those roles gave me that flexibility I wanted to spend time with my family but still stay close to the game. So while that was amazing, there was this little, little thing that was missing. As much as I love doing media – and I love it to death – and still want to continue to do it, that feeling of being a part of the game-day experience, of being around the players, being around the culture, being in that environment, helping motivate people and helping make a difference in people’s lives, making them better people, better players and better husbands, I missed all of that.
I understand the bigger picture and the demand that comes with being a coach; lots of time away from your family and lots of preparation. But in order to get to the top, you have to put in hard work and push to see the result of what it can create. I’m going to learn so much, and it’ll be great on my resume. I’m also going to have a chance to experience what many don’t have an opportunity to experience and I’m definitely thankful for that.
You mentioned your resume, do you have other things you want to do?
My resume is a story of what I’ve done and what I’ve experienced. This is kind of my second real chapter in my life right now. There’s so many different subplots in this chapter; morning shows, radio, TV, sports TV and coaching. There’s so many different things that I’ve had an interest in, but two things never fail to step up front: dealing with people and football. To me, that’s the order. People and football.
If I’m going to give my all to something, and culminate all of my skills in one area, what better area than coaching? Because as a coach you have to communicate, and you have to know how to deal with people. Even when I had some tough topics on CTV Morning Live, it helped to prepare me for this role. It taught me that if I am faced with something tough – and you never know what could come across your table each and every day as a coach – you have to be ready to pre plan and prepare yourself so that you can make a justified and knowledgeable response and truly help a situation in a way that brings value.
Speaking of lending a helping hand, I know you’re involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the SMILE program.
Well, I was sitting around one day, and I was just thinking of the word smile. I was thinking that in order for us to get through our days and our challenges in life, it takes more than just talking; we have to support each other. We have to motivate each other, to inspire each other, to instigate and to investigate. Our intent is very important. These are the kinds of things that I talk about when I break down the word SMILE.
The number one thing we have to learn is how to love. We have to be in the stands for others. That’s what SMILE stands for; what we put into it, we get out of it. A big part extends to my wife. I started back in 2005 in Calgary, and we ran that entire event 16 years ago. But you know, for us, it wasn’t just about talking; it was about getting out in front of kids who didn’t have as much as other kids.
I had both parents growing up. There are a lot of kids who don’t have that infrastructure at all. So it was important for us to help to create that by getting right into the schools and helping to impact kids and creating programs for them. We wanted to help put the right people and role models in their lives.
To see 350 to 400 kids coming to TD place in Ottawa; a lot of those kids lived in Colorado and had never seen a place like or heard of TD Place before. You can definitely see the remnants of the type of homes that they come from, so to give them a moment where it’s like, ‘wow, this is awesome, and it’s all about me, where people care about me, they’re showing love to me. They’re doing everything they can, because it’s all about me’. And I’ve seen kids come to the field and have frowns, bad faces, mean-mugging… but when they leave that field, it’s like they don’t want to leave. They’re giving you hugs, they’re laughing, they’re jumping around, there’s joy on their face. And then when you see them the following year, you can just tell that the little seed that we planted has grown into something beautiful.
That’s the impact that you want to see; it’s not about us. It’s about seeing those kids benefit. We’re just sitting back in the stands now, just enjoying it.
We’re one of the blessed few to have the foundation that we have and the people around us that we have, we want to make sure that all kids have a voice, all kids are represented, all kids have a chance. That’s what we’ve all been guaranteed so why shouldn’t every kid have an opportunity, once they work hard to put themselves in a position to deserve that opportunity.
Take me through the moment you were inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Oh man, that was a wild moment. I had no idea what was about to happen. I don’t know how my wife and kids held onto that information for five months.
To be able to see the video with my family and for my boys to be right there and see all those emotions of all those years and everything that we’ve been through; the highs and lows that all came together in that moment, it was truly mind blowing.
I hear people say ‘oh you had to have expected it’. But before this I was a workhorse, I always continued to push hard. That’s why I always played with a chip on my shoulder until we reach that final destination. This was the result of me putting in all that work to reaching that final destination: getting to share that in the moment and having Damon Allen – the man who made the first phone call to welcome me into this league as a player – be the first phone call for me entering the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. It was pretty unreal.
Of the Hall of Fame inductees, who are some that have influenced you over the course of your career?
Guys like Warren Moon and Damon Allen. Matt Dunigan, but again he’s invested time in me and actually calling me to give me tips of advice. I mean, there’s so many guys like Danny Barrett, who is a coach, not a Hall of Famer, but he was one of my first coaches, George Cortez, Wally Buono who’s in the Hall of Fame, the winningest coach of all time in CFL history. He’ll still text me today to give me words of advice on ways to approach different things. And I’m thankful just to have had those types of people in my corner. Even Rick Campbell. I have all the support at home with my wife and my boys in my family back home in Oklahoma, but just to know that I had people that were on my side…
Sports is also a game in the press, and they don’t always love you back like you hope. I have people like that, that I looked up to and saw their careers go through the ups and downs, and I saw how they dealt with it. It kept me focused through this.
Since being inducted, what’s changed for you, or has anything changed for you?
As a person? Not really, I mean I’m still a focused guy. That’s why I’m here at training camp. One of the big things about changing professions like this and pretty much having to start all over, and be a rookie again, is that it shows you that I’m still that guy who has taken all the different tools and lessons I’ve learned during my playing career and was able to transfer it. I’m still the same humble guy who is about people, but looking for different ways to challenge myself.
When I did arrive here in Chicago, everybody acknowledged me and said ‘hey, congratulations, you’re a Hall of Famer.’ They said that it doesn’t matter what league you’re in, to have achieved that moment and to achieve that honor, that’s something that people dream about. It goes to show me that sometimes people that are in the NFL or in the states sometimes love the CFL more than Canadians. I know even some of the best players like Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks – they’re god-like men – saying ‘now we know who you are.’ It’s pretty sweet to come out here and know that people keep up with the game regardless of who you are, where you’re from – football is football. To be able to achieve the highest honor, it’s something that’s respected across all platforms.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give new up-and-comers, not necessarily athletes, but also young people?
I always say that, when it comes to young people, never let anybody define your journey. Each and every day you get up, you write your own book. The fact is that what you put into your journey is what you’ll get out of it. It’s not what somebody else does. Never let anybody’s words prove the actions that you have to execute. Because at the end of the day it’s all in your hands.
How do you think the CFL can start adapting to COVID and cut some of these losses?
For the CFL, we’ve got to create a proper business model. It’s got to be something that shows sustainability. They’ve got to put the right people in the right places to run the organization. And I think it’s not about the CFL; it’s about the players, that’s their product. And I’ll always say it; until they focus on the players, the league is going to be year to year like it always is. Nobody knew who Nick Foles was when he came out of college, but then once he started playing, he became that guy in the lives of young people. New Mitch Trubisky was the first round draft pick, but people only knew him once he really started to play and show his ability. That’s what athletics are all about. Nobody knew Usain Bolt from Jamaica, until he stepped on the track and started running. But that’s the difference; it’s like once you expose to these people what athletes are truly capable of doing, you have no idea who they truly are. And so I think that marketability of what these players bring and their stories behind their journeys to get to where they are, that’s what people are interested in. We all connect with that and I think until the CFL decides to focus on the players to create that connectivity with the fans, I think that’s the difference between how it was when there were 40,000 plus people in the Skydome, compared to there being just 10,000 at BMO. Nobody knows who the players are and until there’s consistent ownership and consistent knowledge of who the players are and that connectivity, like Russ Jackson and the guys, Tony Gabriels who played back in the day, it’s hard to get them back to where it should be.
Do you have plans to stay in Ottawa after your camp?
Yeah one hundred percent, I mean that’s why we made Ottawa home and that’s why we’re getting involved in investing into different ideas and opportunities that are in the city. We’re just looking forward to growing ourselves, both Nicole and I and our boys. They love it there and they’re comfortable so yeah, why not? We’ve worked hard to establish ourselves there.
Are your sons just as into sports as you are, or are they more academically inclined?
I definitely make sure they know that school is the first cog before anything else. They have to be good in school otherwise nothing else is going to be possible for them. They won’t be playing any sports unless they make the grades. But they love sports, they’re good at sports in hockey, basketball and soccer. And yeah, they’re competitors, but they’re good people as well and I appreciate that. More than anything, they’re good people and are great students, and they’re great athletes. Especially with all the virtual stuff going on, they’re still content on making themselves better and more knowledgeable and smart. My lawyer told my kids from day one that knowledge is power. And now, as they see stuff going on in the world, they’re starting to believe that.
Cover Photo By Richard Dubois