• July 16, 2020

O’Leary: Burris’ football world ties together in his trip to the Hall

There were times over the last five months, Nicole Burris admits, that it might have just been easier to let her husband in on the secret that the rest of their family knew.

In February, Nicole was informed by the CFL and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame that her husband Henry would be a member of the 2020 class. Usually, the inductee is contacted directly by Mark DeNobile, the hall’s executive director.

But after an 18-year CFL career that saw him amass 57,968 passing yards, 340 touchdowns, three Grey Cup rings and two MOP trophies, Burris deserved something unique. So Nicole found out ahead of Henry that he’d be going into the hall. In exchange for the info, her help was needed.

The original plan was to have Nicole convince Henry to go from their home in Ottawa to Toronto, just after coming back from their spring break trip in March for some business with the league. There, he’d be surprised by fellow hall of famers and told that he was a part of the 2020 class. It was all going to be caught on film for a candid, funny, possibly viral moment.

As this was being planned, coronavirus brought the entire world to a stop.

“We didn’t go away for vacation,” Nicole said. “Then we all went on quarantine.”

Over the last few months, the plan was revised and improvised. Damon Allen filmed a segment to inform Henry that he was headed to the hall and Henry was shown the video at home, with Nicole and their sons, Barron and Armand. The three of them managed to hold a fairly significant secret the entire time.

Like most plans made in 2020, the ones for the Burris family didn’t go off as they were supposed to, but they still came together nicely.

MORE ON THE 2020 HOF INDUCTION CLASS 

» Canadian Football Hall of Fame unveils its 2020 induction class
»
Surprised Hank: Burris gets unique call to the Hall
»
The Waggle, Ep.219: Henry and the Hall Call
»
Who is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame?

 

“Having this honour being presented to me, to have (Damon Allen) being that same kid from California who went through the same experiences I did. Started out in Alberta and ended up making Canada home, it shows you how footprints can be in that same sand,” Burris said.

“To have a guy who’s helped to point me in the right direction throughout this career, to have him present it in that manner … and the whole time, I see him talking with the (Hall of Fame) jacket on.

“I see the branding but I’m like, ‘OK, there’s some type of spoof or something like that.’ Once he said, ‘To the kid from Oklahoma…’ that’s when the tears started to flow. Then when I saw Mark DeNobile, that was it because he’s like the Mr. Sandman or the Midas man or something. As soon as he pops up it has to be something good.

“As soon as that happens, the tears started to flow. Through it all, I was thinking man, my entire family knew this. So they got me good.”

Nicole jokes in the video and in our conversation that football is the only thing that makes Henry cry.

“It was emotional,” she said of watching him learn the news.

“Watching him, surprising him and then watching his reaction and (him) feeling like, you know, I’m appreciated. Because a lot of times…people don’t realize, even if you did have a great career, while you’re still playing you don’t get a chance to really enjoy that career. You don’t get to look back and reflect while you’re still fighting every day.

“To be able to now just live in the positive of the experience was amazing. And for him to feel like overall at the end of the day, after all the blood, sweat and tears, after this and that, they really appreciated my body of work? It’s very humbling.”

The Burris family seen here at TD Place in Ottawa as the REDBLACKS raise Henry’s jersey to the wall of honour in 2017 (The Canadian Press)

 

To many of us, Henry Burris will headline this hall of fame class but as so many football players will remind you as they build those enshrinement-worthy careers, they never do it alone. At the beginning and the end of our conversation, he mentioned the people that are going into the hall with him. You can see that as he put his roots down in Canada to build his career and raise a family with Nicole, that he was paying attention to the game around him. He spoke in detail about each person that will go into the 2020 class with him.

This is the strangest year of most of our lives. There won’t be an actual in-person induction, no moment at a podium in front of friends, family, teammates, coaches and fellow inductees. Maybe that binds this class together in ways that other classes haven’t been before.

“When you look at this group that’s going in and look at the time frame that (the class) covers and look at the impact of the people that are going in that is covered (it’s incredible),” he said.

“From people who’ve been magnificent as far as in the CIS, that they’ve been able to create and build, especially in the Maritimes. You look at players like Greg Vavra to Larry Uteck and of course, a guy who to me was one of the more I guess I could say, devastating forces up front to go against, being Fred Childress.”

“People don’t realize, even if you did have a great career, while you’re still playing you don’t get a chance to really enjoy that career. You don’t get to look back and reflect while you’re still fighting every day.”

— Nicole Burris on watching Henry find out he was going into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Nicole Burris (Henry’s wife) and their two kids celebrate with the Grey Cup at the Ottawa REDBLACKS ring ceremony in 2017 (The Canadian Press)

The CFL is a small football universe and Burris knows that if you’re in it long enough, you start to see how interconnected it can be.

“I’m thankful to be able to go in with a good Sasky offensive lineman,” he said of Clyde Brock. “It’s so ironic how it goes full circle as far as he delivered Saskatchewan’s first Grey Cup in ’66 and to see what he went through in the NFL and to come up here and achieve success, a four-time All-Canadian and then of course, who did Saskatchewan beat winning their first Grey Cup? It was Ottawa.

“Everything comes full circle, to see how we were able to win Ottawa’s first Grey Cup here (with the REDBLACKS in 2016) to have (someone that) was part of winning in Saskatchewan, two proud franchises here in this league, but there’s a lot of proudness attached to this and a lot of men who helped develop some of the greatest franchises that prove that are running strong still today.”

Perhaps no one has impacted the league more in the last decade than Burris’ old coach and GM from his days in Calgary, John Hufnagel, who will be inducted as a builder.

“He’s the winningest coach in our era,” Burris said. “I mean they’ve just been kicking butt after kicking butt. What he’s been able to help build (in Calgary) and developing (coaches) throughout the league…their dominance should be able to continue on for a long time.”