Kern: Ex-Owls QB Burris finds fame in the CFL

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Quarterback Henry Burris #1 of the Ottawa Redblacks hoists the Grey Cup following the 104th Grey Cup Championship Game against the Calgary Stampeders at BMO Field on November 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.

IT WAS LATE September 1994. Temple's football team was 2-1 under second-year coach Ron Dickerson, who had gone 1-10 in his first season. It was the Owls' best start since 1987, when they were 3-1 in Bruce Arians' fifth and next-to-last season before losing their final seven. The '94 team wouldn't win another game, either.

I went to the middle of campus to survey 10 students at random to see if they knew who Henry Burris was. It wasn't supposed to be scientific, just maybe revealing. That week the Owls were going to play fourth-ranked Penn State at Franklin Field, and Burris was their sophomore quarterback.

Those chosen were black, white, mostly young and all male. The results? Seven couldn't identify him. One who did admitted it was a guess. But several did know that Kerry Collins was the Nittany Lions' QB. One of those who came up empty, a senior from Roxborough, considered himself a serious sports fan. "That's embarrassing," he admitted. "But I guess it says a lot."

Those were different times on North Broad. But two decades later, Burris doesn't have that problem. At least not in Canada, where the native of Spiro, Okla., has become a legendary figure.

"For me, Temple was a beginning," said Burris, who Sunday at age 41 was the Grey Cup MVP as his Ottawa Redblacks beat heavily favored Calgary in overtime for the Canadian Football League championship. "It was a place where people never thought it could happen. It was tough sledding. I'm not going to sit here and try and sugarcoat it and make it something it wasn't. We were playing some of the best of the best in the Big East. I watch them play now in the (American Athletic Conference), trust me I would love that. We played a Miami Hurricane team where Ray Lewis came off the bench.

"We didn't have a facility. We practiced on Geasey Field (which they shared). You talk about beating your body up on a daily basis. But nobody ever complained. Always showed up to work. The tough part was all the distractions. You could see so many guys get caught up in that. Now they have guys who really love football. Unfortunately, that wasn't our strength back then.

"I was wet behind the ears when I got there. I went from being a young man to a grown man. We dealt with a lot of struggles, trying to find a way to make ourselves competitive. It taught me the things I needed to do to better myself.

"When you're in the right situation, anything can happen . . . We won five games in my four years."

This year's Owls - who will play at Navy Saturday for the AAC title - have won that many in their last five games.

"I'll definitely be watching," Burris said. "I'll have my legs propped up on the couch. Bring on that triple option.

"Man, I'm an Owl nut. If I'm playing, the first thing I do when the game's over is check on my phone to see how Temple did. You know I've been bragging about my school. It's good to see where it is now. We had that vision. They just had to make the right investment. It's paid off."

Burris has spent almost his entire career north of the border, although he was with the Green Bay Packers in 2001 and the Chicago Bears the following year. He even had a stint with NFL Europe's Berlin Thunder in 2003. His journey has taken him to the CFL's Calgary Stampeders (1997-99, 2005-11) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (2000, 2003-04), and Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2012-13). He also was the Grey Cup MVP in 2008. And the CFL MVP in 2010 and '15. He has thrown for more than 61,000 yards. Now this, in what could turn out to be his last game.

"I'm on cloud nine right now," said Burris, the oldest QB to win the Grey Cup. "People were giving an old guy such a hard time about trying to do this. And I'm like, 'Let a guy do what he does.' It was like the Brett Favre in me came out. We should have won the Grey Cup last year. I said, 'I'm not going out like this.' In my mind I'm still the best quarterback in the league. And we have some gunslingers up here.

"My arm's still strong. I work hard to keep in shape. I can read defenses within the defense . . . It's the perfect scenario to go out on. But as an athlete you always think about now getting two straight. I'm always one of those guys who thinks the sky's the limit. I have nothing left to prove. I always use to tell my (Temple) teammates that one day I was going to play till I'm 40 years old. Did I actually think it would happen? No. But the fact that it did is amazing. I feel like a fine wine.

"It's no different where you play. You still have to line up. We're just on this side of the map, so it kind of gets pushed to the side a little bit. But once you turn it on and watch, you go, 'I know that guy. I didn't know he was up there.' "

Burris married a former Temple lacrosse player. They have two sons, 10 and 7. They've established Canadian roots, even though his CFL status is listed as International.

Did we mention that many of his Temple records lasted until Phillip Walker just surpassed them?

"The boys are hockey phenoms," Burris said of his sons, proudly. "They are Canucks. They do everything Canucks do. We've filed for permanent citizenship, but we're still American through and through. For a while, this is home away from home. We've accepted the culture with open arms, with what they've done for us. We foresee buying property back in the states (his wife is from Maryland) and go back and forth.

"The kids keep asking us, 'When are we going to go see Temple play?' and I tell them, 'When your hockey doesn't get in the way.' They play year-round."

This was Ottawa's first title in 40 years. So it was some celebration. The Redblacks, in their third season, are the third franchise to represent Ottawa in the CFL over the years.

"It was awesome to have 50,000 people up and down the street cheering at the parade," he said. "We were the team that finally delivered. To be part of that, it's hard to imagine a better feeling."

And it all began right here, on teams that pretty much had no chance.

"The sad part for me was, there were times when we put up a lot of points on some very good teams," Burris said. "But in the end, if you don't win, was it really worth it? Do you really feel good? We scored 52 and lost (by one at Pitt in 1996). That's nuts. In high school, all we ever knew was winning. I don't think it was an experience anyone else could ever talk about, for sure. That's why, even after we won and everybody was letting loose, you saw me pause and hesitate before I joined in. I wanted to make sure this was reality.

"Going through those times, regardless of what we did, things just never went our way. But it helped prepare me for this moment."


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn