Henry Burris wound up sitting on top of the Canadian Football League on Sunday night and it was all Smiling Hank, all good – no more of those other detested nicknames, Good Hank-Bad Hank, that too often were used to describe his playoff career.
Burris is riding high after one of the most dramatic Grey Cup games ever and what may be the biggest upset in league history, with the Ottawa RedBlacks surviving a second-half stumble to beat the Calgary Stampeders 39-33 in overtime at BMO Field. The record now shows Burris, 41, is not only the oldest quarterback to lead his team to the CFL championship, he now has two Grey Cup rings after four meaningful appearances in the game, cementing his legacy as a champion, not someone who could not win the big game.
"I just hope for those people who start talking again about what I can and cannot do, all this Good Hank and Bad Hank, they sit back and look at the facts," Burris said. "There's teams decades into their [history] not winning championships and here we are, three short years, going to back-to-back championships and we win on number two."
That was the incredible upset part. The RedBlacks are a third-year expansion team and managed quite a feat in simply making it to the Grey Cup in 2015 in their second year. They did it again this year but no one gave them a chance, considering their 8-9-1 regular-season record and that the Stampeders went 15-2-1 and were preparing to assume the mantle of greatest CFL team ever with what was expected to be an easy win.
Instead, after the RedBlacks made it to overtime after coughing up a 27-7 lead and Burris hit Ernest Jackson for the winning touchdown, they brought the Grey Cup to Ottawa for the first time in 40 years. The last one also came in Toronto, in 1976 at old Exhibition Stadium with the long-gone Rough Riders.
"We always believed. We never stopped believing," said Burris, picked as the game's most-outstanding player by The Football Reporters of Canada. "Everybody picked Calgary to win. It was like damn, why are we even here? We heard what people were saying. We're the team nobody showed respect but all we did was win."
Burris finished the game with 461 yards passing (fourth-highest in Cup history) on 35 completions in 46 attempts and three touchdowns. He also scored two majors himself on one-yard plunges, a remarkable feat considering a knee injury in the warmup almost kept him out of the game. Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who had a long, long day, still threw for 391 yards with the combined passing yardage of 852 setting a Grey Cup record.
Just as sweet for Burris was that the win came against Calgary, the team he played seven seasons for, only to be traded in 2012 when its rebuilding program started to pay off.
"This was a perfect setting to go out there and prove to everybody who you are," Burris said.
But he almost didn't get the chance. During the pregame warmup, Burris was jogging back to the huddle when his left knee locked up. His status as the starter was in doubt until Ottawa's first series of the game, as backup Trevor Harris looked set to start, but some intensive treatments and painkillers saw Burris make it out for the team's first series.
"It scared the heck out of me because there was a chance I couldn't play," Burris said. "Our medical staff went to work on me. This knee better put it in, after 20 some years of pro football experience it better give me three more hours and it did."
Burris and the RedBlacks had to sweat out Calgary's corresponding drive in overtime but Mitchell could not find a receiver in three tries and one of the greatest upsets in CFL history was in the books.
A few minutes earlier, Ottawa defensive back Abdul Kanneh was the one sweating most during the last minute of the fourth quarter after first making one of the worst mistakes of the night, followed by a play that saved the RedBlacks for overtime. First, he grabbed a towel in the belt of Calgary receiver Kamar Jorden for a pass-interference penalty that gave the Stampeders a first down and goal-to-go on the Ottawa eight-yard line. Then, after backup quarterback Andrew Buckley was sent in to try and run in his second touchdown of the game, Kanneh tripped him, forcing Calgary to settle for a 10-yard field goal with nine seconds to play that forced overtime and gave Ottawa another life.
This resulted in more second-guessing of Stamps head coach Dave Dickinson. He decided to take a second short-yardage shot with Buckley, who scored from the one in the third quarter to become the first Canadian quarterback to get a touchdown since Russ Jackson in 1968, rather than pound away with monster running back Jerome Messam, voted the league's top Canadian this season. Kanneh just managed to get a hand on Buckley's heel, which sent him tumbling to the turf and forced the field goal.
"I knew I messed up but I know football, it's ups and downs all the time," Kanneh said. "I know my boys got me. Even though I messed up, I know my boys got me.
"It was the greatest thing in the world. All we wanted to do, we wanted to do it for Henry [Burris]. I talked to him last year after the Grey Cup and I told him we're going to get you one, baby."
Dickinson, who looked stunned after the game, said he had "some regret" about not going with Messam. He wasn't quite as regretful about the overall game plan, which saw Mitchell often on a different page than his receivers and facing pressure from the Ottawa pass rush.
"We called the game we figured was best for our team," Dickinson said. "It just didn't work out."
After Burris opened the third quarter by directing another scoring drive that ended with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Brad Sinopoli, who was voted the game's best Canadian, it looked like there was an easy path to one of the CFL's great upsets. But the Stampeders somehow collected themselves and it was the RedBlacks who started making mistakes that ate into their 27-7 lead.
The comeback started with a 32-yard Rene Paredes field goal. Then Mitchell, who had a horrendous first half, finally started hitting his receivers with Lemar Durant catching a 33-yard touchdown pass. The big mistake on that one was committed by Ottawa defensive back Antoine Pruneau. He somehow did not touch Durant after the latter fell after making the catch, allowing Durant to get up and run for the major. A video review let the touchdown stand.
Buckley's touchdown, which cut Ottawa's lead to four points, tightened a lot of collars among Ottawa fans but Burris wasn't finished. The old guy went back out for yet another scoring drive, ending it at 6:03 of the fourth quarter with a one-yard plunge for his second rushing touchdown.
RedBlacks defensive back Forrest Hightower gave his team some breathing room with his second interception of the game, stopping a Calgary drive with 3:21 left in the fourth quarter. But Mitchell and the Stampeders came back a minute later, working their way into Ottawa territory where DaVaris Daniels, on third-down and two yards, ran an end-around 19 yards for a touchdown with 1:38 left in the fourth quarter. The convert cut Ottawa's lead to 33-30, setting up Glenn Love's recovery of an on-side kick for Calgary that started the heart-stopping final 90 seconds of play.
Now that he and the RedBlacks survived that 90 seconds, people are wondering if Burris will take the opportunity to retire as a champion. He sounded all week like someone who wants to keep playing but, standing in the end zone with his parents, wife, children and a group of friends in the middle of a loud celebration, Burris had other things on his mind.
"I'm so focused on enjoying this moment," Burris said. "I want to find out what's going on with this knee and enjoy my family. I'm just going to focus on my family, teammates, this city. Man, we're going to party it up. Right now, I'm not even thinking about that."