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On the Fly, with Henry Burris

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Henry Burris On the Fly
By Greg Dalgetty

Henry Burris is no stranger to performing under pressure. In fact, he excels at it.

The decorated quarterback enjoyed a CFL career that spanned 17 seasons, winning three Grey Cups, two Grey Cup MVPs and two Most Outstanding Player awards along the way. He ranks third all-time in the CFL in passing yards and touchdowns thrown. These are no mean feats, considering he intense pressure quarterbacks face on the gridiron.

Recently retired from pro football, Burris now faces a different kind of pressure—the pressure of live television. After announcing his retirement in January, the Oklahoma native joined the on-air team at CTV Morning Live Ottawa.

Now he starts his days at 3:00 a.m. and greets viewers in the nation’s capital with his boundless energy and trademark smile.

"All the skills I learned from the field—teamwork and how to prepare for game days—have prepared me for this opportunity," Burris, 42, explains.

"Playing football—and especially being a quarterback—there’s a lot of pressure on you to make the right decisions on the fly," he says. "Despite how crazy live TV can get, like when breaking news occurs, you have to stay poised and focused on the job at hand."

Going Out on Top

The 2016 CFL season was tumultuous for Burris, to say the least.

After being named the league’s Most Outstanding Player in 2015—a season that saw him break records for most completions in a season and a single game while leading the Ottawa Redblacks to first place in the East Division—Burris was sidelined by an injury to his throwing hand in the first game of 2016.

He was replaced by backup quarterback Trevor Harris, but Burris eventually returned to help the Redblacks back to the top of the East—and back to the Grey Cup—for a second straight year.

After falling to the Edmonton Eskimos in the 2015 Grey Cup, the Redblacks were up against the league-best Calgary Stampeders in 2016. No one gave them much of a chance to win the game and, as if things weren’t looking grim enough, Burris injured his knee just prior to kickoff.

Never one to shy away from adversity, however, he soldiered on, leading the Redblacks to a thrilling 39-33 overtime victory—and their first Grey Cup. With the championship on the line, he passed for 461 yards, threw three touchdowns and was named MVP of the game.

"I’ve always been a guy who wants to be in the underdog scenario," Burris says. "For me it had been almost 10 years since I had won a Grey Cup, and to be able to finally make it happen again in my last season—my final season, my final game—talk about a blessing coming true."

Of course, at the time, Burris hadn’t decided whether it would, in fact, be his last season. He attended the Grey Cup parade on crutches—the knee injury he’d suffered before the game was no joke—and told fans in attendance that he’d wait until the New Year to decide on his future.

In January of this year, he finally decided to hang up his cleats. It wasn’t a decision that came easily.

"It’s never as easy as it seems, because once you win, there’s still that competitive side of you that wonders if you could do it back to back," he explains. "Those thoughts were going through my mind. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t think about it."

But ultimately, the opportunity to go out on top following one of the best performances of his storied career was too good to pass up.

Another Form of Art

It’s not so surprising that Burris has ended up on TV.

He studied broadcasting and communications at Temple University in Philadelphia while he was setting records for the school’s football team—and he certainly has the personality and charisma for live television.

But before he started his studies, he worked for his uncle’s residential construction company, helping build houses. He credits the discipline and work ethic he developed on the jobsite with setting him up for his future successes.

"Being able to learn those skills at a young age helped develop me into becoming a quarterback and made me able to do the things I do today," he says. "It was a lot of hard work and manual labour, but in the end you got to see how it benefited the homeowners when they moved in."

And along the way, he gained a special appreciation for the trades.

"To me it’s just another form of art. There are many great artists in this world doing different things, from the mechanical side to the homebuilding side, to making music, playing football and doing live TV. It’s all art in its own way. It comes from hard work and preparation."

Making Ottawa Home

Burris may no longer play for the Redblacks, but he has no intention of leaving Ottawa. He and his family—wife, Nicole, and sons, Armand and Barron—have made a home for themselves in their adopted city.

"To be able to stay here in a city where we helped revitalize football is a dream come true for me," he says. "Ottawa is a special city. We’re in the nation’s capital, but it’s such a community-driven, safe city that actually feels like a big town."