TORONTO — The Tenors finished singing O Canada, red and white fireworks boomed above the capacity crowd at BMO Field and a pair of CF18 Hornets soared over the stadium in a flyby.
As this was happening, Ottawa Redblacks backup defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon let out a scream and backup receiver Khalil Paden knelt to pray in the corner of the end zone. The Redblacks, whether it was a simple role player or a star like the game’s eventual MVP Henry Burris, came to play. And play they did.
While the players were psyching themselves up for a 104th Grey Cup showdown with the Calgary Stampeders, a full section of Redblacks fans — decked out in so much plaid it would make Al Borland blush — was located behind Ottawa’s bench cheering and stomping their feet. They came to support their team. And support them they did.
Prior to kickoff, however, there was a sense of apprehension in the air after Burris limped off the field following his team’s warm-ups after hearing a pop in his knee. Were it not for some knee brace adjustments and “happy pills” given to him by the team’s trainers he might not have been able to play at all.
“I felt almost like Willis Reed with the New York Knicks when he hurt his leg but he limped back on the court and led his team his team to victory,” Burris joked after the game. “All of a sudden [while jogging back to the huddle during a warm-up drill] I felt a crunch, pop. It felt like it kind of went unstable or buckled on me or something like that and when I felt the pop I couldn’t really extend my leg fully…I was like ‘please don’t tell me this is happening right now.’
“They did some things, gave me some happy pills, to make sure I didn’t feel much pain. As long as I could come out here and make good, quick decisions and get the ball out of my hand…maybe I could do enough to help put our team in a position to be successful.”
Ottawa’s first play from scrimmage was an off-the-mark lateral pass from Burris that skipped off the grass and luckily was recovered by Brad Sinopoli for a loss of eight yards. If his pre-game injury and first pass attempt were a sign of things to come it would have been a long night for the underdog Redblacks. However, that play, plus a fourth-quarter interception, were seemingly the only mistakes Burris made all night.
Burris, the only Redblacks player who was alive the last time an Ottawa team won a Grey Cup, said he wanted to put his team in a position to have success. He accomplished a great deal more than that. He led the charge, completing 35 of 46 pass attempts, throwing for 461 yards, three touchdowns and running in two more scores as the Redblacks held on to beat the Stampeders 39-33 in an overtime classic — just the third time in CFL history that the Grey Cup wasn’t decided in regulation. It was incredible.
For all the talk of poor ticket sales and Toronto not being a great football town, the atmosphere at BMO Field was outstanding and a fitting setting for this storybook finish to the 2016 season — and possibly a storybook ending to what has been a remarkable CFL career.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Sinopoli, the game’s Most Valuable Canadian, said of his quarterback’s performance. “He’s such a leader and an amazing teammate. An amazing guy. He had the game of his life to be honest with you.”
Burris, along with Ottawa’s other high profile quarterback Trevor Harris, had a special connection with the Redblacks receivers all season and that’s what we saw Sunday on a cool, clear night ideal for football. Burris targeted Greg Ellingson early and often. Four times for 60 yards on their opening drive in fact. Then he went to Sinopoli, a former third-string quarterback turned receiver of the Stamps, who finished with six catches for 94 yards and a touchdown.
East Division MOP nominee Ernest Jackson also balled out with 96 yards plus the game-winning touchdown where he bobbled the ball three times, keeping Redblacks fans holding their breath, before finally hauling it in. Juron Criner, Kienan Lafrance and Patrick Lavoie also made huge plays at key moments in the game. Everyone on offence stepped up. All told, Burris connected with eight different receivers.
“He was slinging the ball everywhere, feeling great out there, he put the balls where they should have been. Everybody contributed and I’m proud of these guys,” Ellingson said as plumes of cigar smoke filled Ottawa’s locker room after the game. “For a lot of the year everyone was talking about having four 1,000-yard receivers and having over 6,000 yards of passing on offence and it showed today. We came out and had that ‘Eye of the Tiger’ mentality coming into it and you could see it on the field.”
Burris is 41, has won two Grey Cups as a starting QB and sits in third place on the CFL’s all-time list for passing yards, completions and touchdowns. He has nothing else to prove. Playing lights out in a classic championship game and winning? There’s no better way to end an illustrious career.
“Right now I want to find out what’s going on with this knee, I want to spend time with my family, I want to spend time with that Grey Cup,” Burris said. “Right now I’m not even thinking about that. I’m going to take the next few weeks. December is for my family. I’m going to focus on my family this entire month, enjoy the holidays with them and then after that we’ll start to talk about what the future holds.”
Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell said earlier in the week that even at age 41 Burris still truly loves all the minutia that comes with being a professional football player. He echoed that sentiment after the game.
“When you do something as long as he has that’s physically and mentally demanding sometimes you get worn out on it. He’s not that way,” Campbell said. “He’s enthusiastic and loves the game so we’ll see what he does.”
Harris played more games than Burris this year and was actually the better quarterback overall, at least statistically speaking, yet this Redblacks team was always Burris’s to lead. And Harris, who celebrated just as fervently and sprayed champagne just as enthusiastically as any of his teammates Sunday, had been fine with that all season long.
“We have an unselfish group of guys and that’s the first thing I felt when I came here,” Harris said. “It was about just our team, not individuals. It’s what makes us great.”
If Burris decides to go out on top, Ottawa fans need not worry about how it might impact the makeup of the roster. The Redblacks will remain in a great position to succeed because Harris is ready to take the reins. His attitude and how he handled playing second fiddle to a great like Burris is reflective of what made this Redblacks team special despite a less-than-impressive regular-season record.
Harris, Burris, the Redblacks players, coaches and fans don’t need to think about all that right this second though.
For now, they can revel in a gripping Grey Cup victory that was shepherded by the one and only Smilin’ Hank.
“It’s awesome for a guy of his age, you start wondering how many years, how many games, how many plays, how long you have left and to be able to accomplish this at this stage of his career is nothing short of outstanding,” Harris added. “You can’t not be happy for a guy like that, a first-class Hall of Fame person and player.”