For one of the few times in his life, Henry Burris was left speechless.
The 18-year veteran quarterback headlines the Canadian Football Hall of Fame’s 2020 class that was unveiled Thursday. Burris, 45, got the nod in his first year of eligibility, becoming just the 21st player ever to do so but second in as many years after Calgary running back Jon Cornish in 2019.
Joining Burris in the player category are offensive linemen Clyde Brock and Freddie Childress and quarterback Greg Vavra. John Hufnagel, the Calgary Stampeders president/GM, and Larry Uteck (posthumously), the former head coach/athletic director at Saint Mary’s University, were both named as builders.
Burris’s family — wife Nicole and sons Armand and Barron — had known of his induction since February but managed to keep quiet about it until about two and a half weeks ago when the Hall of Fame informed Burris. Even then, the Burris clan was very nonchalant in asking the former quarterback to take in what he thought was a run-of-the-mill video.
Instead, Burris watched Hall of Famer Damon Allen (2012) outline his pro football journey to Canada, which drew a rather bewildered look from Burris. Then Allen detailed Burris’s stellar CFL career before Mark DeNobile, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, delivered the big news.
And the player, affectionately dubbed Smilin’ Hank because of his outgoing personality, was lost for words as tears streamed down his face.
“Yeah, they got me good,” Burris said with a chuckle. “What’s funny is whenever I’ve told the boys to keep anything quiet, they’ve always gone back to their mother and yet they didn’t say a peep about this.
“I was lost for words just because to hear it shows you that people appreciated the things you did throughout your career. This is the way for the league and all the organizations and the fans saying, ‘Thank you,’ and for me I’m humbled by it . . . there’s so many guys in there (Hall of Fame) who I looked up to and now to be able to join them is a dream come true.”
The six-foot-one, 190-pound Burris, a native of Spiro, Okla., played 20 pro seasons, 18 in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders (1997-99, 2005-11), Saskatchewan Roughriders (2000, 2003-04), Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2012-13) and Ottawa Redblacks (2014-16). Burris also spent time with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers (2001) and Chicago Bears (2002).
Burris appeared in five Grey Cups, winning three (1998, ’08, ’16) and being named the MVP twice (2008, ’16). The CFL’s outstanding player on two occasions (2010, 2015), Burris amassed 63,639 passing yards and 373 TD passes — both third all-time.
Burris retired shortly after leading Ottawa to a thrilling 39-33 overtime Grey Cup upset win over Calgary. He threw for 461 yards and three TDs despite suffering a knee injury during warmups.
Burris said his Hall of Fame induction is as much a testament to his family’s resilience and perseverance as it is his on-field accomplishments.
“I had to take my wife all over Canada, drag my kids all over Canada and force them to make new friends just for dad to be able to play this game called football,” said Burris, whose family still calls Ottawa home. “And for them to understand and see just the emotions that ran through me . . . it just shows how big that moment is, just kind of when your whole life flashes before you.”
Burris and the other inductees will have to wait for their day in the sun due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 class will be honoured alongside the 2021 inductees next August.
When Burris is formally honoured, he’ll be joined by former teammate Childress and Hufnagel, who served as Calgary’s head coach (2008-2015) before moving into the front office full-time. Burris won Grey Cups with both (’98 with Childress, ’08 with Hufnagel).
“Calgary is a machine right now and it all started in 2008 when Huf came in and we got that Grey Cup in his first year,” Burris said. “Calgary has always had double-digit wins and been in the playoffs each and every year Huf has been there, they’ve always been a strong contender for the Grey Cup and there’s one reason why.”
Hufnagel, a 68-year-old native of Coraopolis, Pa., spent 12 seasons as a CFL quarterback with Calgary (1976-79), Saskatchewan (1980-83, 1987) and Winnipeg (1984-86) before getting into coaching. A five-time Grey Cup champion, Hufnagel also earned a Super Bowl ring as an assistant with the New England Patriots (2003).
Hufnagel amassed a 102-42-1 record as Calgary’s head coach, his .712 win percentage being the highest among coaches with more than 100 games. He’s been named the CFL’s coach of the year twice (2008, 2014).
Childress, a 53-year-old native of Little Rock, Ark., played 13 CFL seasons with Shreveport (1994), Birmingham (1995), Calgary (1996-03) and Saskatchewan (2004-06). A former second-round pick of the NFL’s New England Patriots, Childress won two Grey Cups with the Stampeders (1998, 2001) and in 1998 was named the CFL’s top offensive lineman.
Brock, 79, of Los Angeles, played 12 seasons with Saskatchewan (1964-75), helping the club win its first Grey Cup in 1966. The former Dallas Cowboy-San Francisco 49er appeared in 169 regular-season CFL games and four times was named a league all-star before being inducted into Saskatchewan’s Plaza of Honour in 1995.
Vavra, 59, of Red Deer, Alta., helped the Calgary Dinos win the Vanier Cup in 1983, his final season at the school. That year, he also became the first player in the program’s history to capture the Hec Crighton Trophy as Canadian university football’s top player and still holds the U Sports record for most passing yards in a game (627).
Vavra was drafted by the Calgary Stampeders in 1984 and also spent time with the B.C. Lions (1986-87) and Edmonton Eskimos (1988).
After playing seven CFL seasons as a defensive back with Toronto (1974-76), B.C. (1977), Montreal (1978-80) and Ottawa (1980), Uteck became an assistant coach at Saint Mary’s University in 1982. He was promoted to head coach the following year, a position he held until 1997.
Over that span, Uteck was named the Atlantic University Athletic Association coach of the year five times and twice Canadian university football’s top coach.
Uteck served as athletic director from 1995 to 2002 and the Huskies captured two Vanier Cups (2001-02). The native of Thornhill, Ont., passed away Dec. 25, 2002 of Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 50.
The Atlantic Bowl was renamed the Uteck Bowl in 2003.