WINNIPEG — Under Henry Burris’ smile is the ache, and you can find it if you look. He’s had a marvellous career, a Hall of Fame one, one Grey Cup, but the idea of Bad Hank — the label given his worst moments, of which there have been a few — hangs over him. He talked earlier in the week about how he had to trust his reads, make the throws. At 40, playing for the underdog Ottawa Redblacks, it felt like Burris needed this.
In the 103rd Grey Cup, in front of 36,634 in the freezing Manitoba night, Burris was handed the ball with three minutes and 81 yards to go. A chance.
But he could only get them to midfield. He took a sack. He waited to get the ball back. There was enough time.
Edmonton, however, was the best team in this league for a reason. They hammered the ball, hammered it again, strangled the clock. Burris never saw the ball again, and Edmonton won its first Grey Cup in 10 years, 26-20.
After a quick start, it felt like the underdog Redblacks were holding on, trying to ride a powerful bull. Edmonton is so full of explosive players, and every time they were defused you could almost hear the relief. Meanwhile, Burris was starting to make squirrelly throws after a surgical start, and you could see caution creep in. Edmonton kicker Sean Whyte missed one field goal in the first half, and doinked one off the upright in the second.
Everything Burris was throwing was short and safe, and that wasn’t going to do it. Ottawa still led 20-18 with a little over four minutes to go, because its defence had been making enough plays between big gains for Edmonton’s dangerous skill players. In only their second year of existence, in this strange year, the 12-6 Redblacks weren’t given much of a chance, until they gave themselves one.
But the Eskimos drew two pass interference calls that totalled 65 yards on a single drive, and scored on a third-and-goal from the one. It was enough.
It had started, strangely, with a lumberjack controversy. The lumberjacks are students from Algonquin College who serve as Redblacks mascots, and were en route to Winnipeg when the CFL somehow upheld the complaint from the Eskimos that having the lumberjacks on the sideline cutting a slice of a log after each Ottawa touchdown would constitute “a competitive advantage.”
Sheesh. The compromise involved lumberjacks but no cutting, or the CFL justice equivalent of cutting the baby in half. Edmonton’s complaint was, as Redblacks owner Jeff Hunt put it, “petty.”
But then the game became something where every little thing mattered. The Eskimos were 7.5-point favourites, and you could actually see the difference — an offensive line full of giants, huge cornerbacks, towering receivers who can run by you and laugh. The Eskimos went 14-4 with Reilly missing half his games, and finishing ninth in the league in passer efficiency when he did play. They tore 14-4 Calgary apart last week.
And then Burris took the field. His first pass was a tricky one, and was batted away instead of being intercepted. And then Burris carved his way down the field, completing five passes to five different receivers, and suddenly it was 7-0 Ottawa. Edmonton’s Kendall Lawrence fumbled the kick return, and Burris smoothly sliced his way to another touchdown in four plays. A missed convert later, it was 13-0 for the underdogs, 6:09 in. The lumberjacks couldn’t saw the wood, but were excited nonetheless.
And then, Edmonton flexed, slowly. A field goal. Pressure on Burris. The strongest-armed QB in the league saw Chris Williams streaking downfield on the next play, though, and . . . the ball just slipped as he threw it, flopped around, and was intercepted. Bad Hank. And you wondered: If the ache is right beneath the surface, how much would Burris worry about another bad throw? How badly does the 40-year-old not want to be Bad Hank?
Reilly hammered home a touchdown six plays later to make it 13-10, and the worry lines started to appear for Ottawa. A Redblack offside negated what might have been a fumble-return touchdown. Edmonton’s pressure started to crash home like an avalanche finding a little mountain village, and one possession after that, Burris threw a couple passes that looked dangerous, and Ottawa had to settle for a field goal. With 12 seconds left in the half Reilly smashed home a nine-play touchdown drive. Edmonton, after that start, led 17-16 at the half.
The tug of war carried on, deep into the night, and Burris, who made the game look so easy to start, saw his stable of four star receivers disappear, saw Eskimos crash into his backfield, and couldn’t find the solution. The game was easy, until it was hard.
There was quiet turbulence this week, in a league that used to veer into heavy weather. Still no player drug testing plan. The looming question of the league and concussions. Canada’s national Inuit organization asking Edmonton to change its name, and other voices chiming in. The game sellout was aided by tickets distributed free to local high schools, and the commissioner had his first bad day. It wasn’t perfect.
Neither was the game, and neither was Burris. He will still smile. But this one will hurt.