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Henry Burris Buries Bad Hank and Stampeders in Grey Cup Classic

They call him Good Hank, and Bad Hank. Ottawa QB Henry Burris was Great Hank on Sunday, though, leading the Redblacks to their first Grey Cup victory with an MVP performance.

by Chris O'Leary
Nov 28 2016, 6:18pm

Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Before the crown jewel game of his 21-year pro career; before he beat a team that every expert said was unbeatable and before he chopped down the alter ego he'd hated for years, Henry Burris' knee locked up and everything stopped.

"I was jogging back to the huddle and all of a sudden I felt a jolt, a crunch and also a pop in my left knee," Burris said on Sunday night, the confetti sprinkled around him and the Ottawa Redblacks after they'd shocked his former team, the Calgary Stampeders, in overtime to win the Grey Cup.

"That freaked me out," he said. "My leg started locking up and I couldn't extend it all the way."

READ MORE: The Odd Traditions of CFL Grey Cup Week

When you're a 41-year-old quarterback, nothing is guaranteed. Burris didn't want a jolt, crunch and a pop to be his story on Sunday. So by the time the anthem was sung, he was hopped up on what he called "happy pills" from team doctors and had run out onto the field to snag the start from his backup, Trevor Harris.

His line—35 of 46 passing for 461 yards and three touchdowns, while putting that knee at risk on two short-yardage running TDs—probably would have won him game MVP regardless of the outcome. Burris was magnificent on Sunday night, but the one bad play that he made in the game—a fourth-quarter interception when the Stamps had cut a 20-point deficit down to four—allowed him to finally down Bad Hank.

Hi Haters. Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Good Hank/Bad Hank has hovered over Burris through most of his CFL career. It's been an unwanted Jekyll and Hyde label that reminded him of growing up in Spiro, Oklahoma, with what he felt were certain expectations on a black quarterback.

"Let me shine a little bit of light on that," Burris' father, Henry Sr. said as he and his wife, Caresse, stood a few feet away from their son.

"When he was being recruited out of high school, I had talked to a coach at Oklahoma State. There was a kid there named what, Tony Jones?"

"Tony Jones," Caresse nods.

"Tony Jones," he continued. "They played in the all-state game. They didn't want another black quarterback, they already had Tony. Tony was the kind of guy with three yards and a cloud of dust. Henry had a superior arm to Tony.

"We always told him, 'If you're going to be a black quarterback we've got to prepare you.'"

"He had to be a step above," Caresse said.

"It's still... it shouldn't be like that," Henry Sr. said. "You deal with a person on character and their ability to do things and that's it."

Burris went to Temple and set 20 school passing records. But his college roommate, best friend and the best man at his wedding, Dean Esposito, says unfair questions were always there.

"Even though we had black quarterbacks then, it was: can he win; did his numbers come when the game was out of hand? All that crap."

Burris shares a moment with best friend Dean Esposito after the Redblacks' Grey Cup victory. Photo by Chris O'Leary

Fair or not, whatever the intentions behind it, Good Hank/Bad Hank has been the narrative in the stands, in press boxes and on TVs across Canada for years. Sunday night was no different. It was really, really good Hank most of the night, but as Calgary woke up in the second half and started to look like the team that went 15-2-1 this year, determined to put 8-9-1 Ottawa in its place, everyone was wondering if Hank would make a mistake.

And when he did, throwing the ball to Ciante Evans, it could have been the pin coming out of the grenade for Burris and the Redblacks. Burris' hands dropped to his sides, his shoulders slumped, but it wasn't over.

With the version of himself that he hates staring at him once again, Burris shattered the mirror. On Calgary's next drive he came up big in second-down situations twice, hitting Juron Criner for 22 and 38-yard gains to set up the touchdown that put them up 10. When Calgary managed to make up the difference in the final two minutes and send the game to overtime, Burris made good on second downs twice to get his team the game-winning touchdown.

Burris is the type of athlete that takes all of his departures personally, but he said earlier in the week that being traded by the Stamps in 2012 after seven years there hurt the most.

"This is the perfect setting to have this type of game," he said. "You come out here in the Grey Cup, knowing what type of juggernaut you're up against, a team that I know oh so well, a city that I know oh so well.

"If there's one time that I need to come together and have the game of my life with the type of team that we have here, the offence that we have, it was tonight. This was the perfect setting to go out and prove to everybody who exactly we are."

Burris' year was one of him screaming who he is with not nearly enough people paying attention to him. He was injured in Week 1 and had ran the gauntlet of emotions as he came back but lost his starting job, before getting it back once again. He struggled early in the season and tore into TSN's panel during a halftime interview in August. He looked like a pro wrestler as he ranted and pointed into the camera. He emphatically told the panel, which is made up of three former CFL players, to "shove it."

That chip on his shoulder has always been there, but it might have been at its biggest this year.

Burris' 461 passing yards were the fourth most in Grey Cup history. Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

"This entire week it was all about Calgary. We're watching all the different TV stations, all they're talking about and showing is Calgary and its journey to the Grey Cup. Well, I thought ours was more interesting," Burris said.

"I just hope for those people before they start talking and saying what I can't do, all this Good Hank, Bad Hank, they sit back and look at the facts. There are teams decades into their organizations not winning championships and here we are in three short years going to back-to-back Grey Cups and sealing the deal in No. 2."

The happy pills wearing off, Burris' limp grew more noticeable after the game. A jolt, a crunch and a pop are never good and could be especially bad on a 41-year-old, even if he trains and can still play like he's half of that, or maybe a smidgen more. He didn't want to address his future, not on the big stage on Sunday, not with his wife, Nicole, under his arm, not with his young sons, Armond and Barron getting to see their dad look indestructible in one of the best Grey Cups ever played.

The future could be complicated. The knee injury, the year remaining on his contract and the fact that Harris is there, 30 and waiting to take over. Whatever happens next, Henry Burris had the fourth-greatest passing game in Grey Cup history on Sunday and became the oldest quarterback to ever win a championship; something an Ottawa CFL team hadn't done in 40 years.

His best man said it best: "This good Henry/Bad Henry crap, why don't we just call him Great Henry? That's really what he is."