Playing For Keeps
by Stephen Johnson
Henry Burris may be the most recognized sports figure in Ottawa. As the guy who led the second-year Ottawa Redblacks to the Grey Cup last season, he helped ignite football fever in this city, and was named the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Player for 2015. A high-profile community leader too, he volunteers for a number of charitable organizations around town and has even started doing radio and television work. While he’s proud of these accomplishments, there are two things more important to him: being a husband and being a father.
“I try to acknowledge my wife Nicole and sons Armond and Barron whenever I am on the football field or doing an interview,” he says. “They are the reason for everything I do and the secret behind any success.”
Given the star quarterback’s passion for family, it is not surprising he considers his parents to be his two greatest role models. “My dad, Henry Senior, grew up in Oklahoma and was an elite baseball player,” he explains. “Unfortunately, the racial prejudice of the times prevented him from playing in the major leagues. He was later drafted into the Vietnam War and served six months over there. I feel fortunate to have my father knowing he could have been hit by a bullet. Dad became a social worker and my mom, Caresse, was always there for me and my two sisters. We were not a rich family but had enough and felt loved by both parents.”
Henry was born and raised in Spiro, Oklahoma, and sports played a huge role in his family life as he grew up. His older sister, Trina, was a softball and basketball star while younger sister Charlita excelled in track.
Young Henry almost seemed preordained to play football. “Being from football mad Spiro, I think they ask the newborns in the delivery room what position they will be playing on the football field,” he jokes. In truth, he started throwing a football at age six or seven and eventually became quarterback of his high school team. “It was just like the movie Friday Night Lights, where the whole town would shut down for the high school game. Mom and dad were always up in the stands supporting me.”
After a successful high school career, Henry became quarterback at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although he enjoyed personal success as a college quarterback, his team, the Temple Owls, wasn’t very good. Off the field, however, he had the good fortune to meet his future wife, Nicole.
“She was a star lacrosse player and I was her groupie,” laughs Henry. “It was hard to convince her that I was a good player when we only won five games in four years.”
He must have done something right, since they’ve been married for 12 years and have two sons; Armond is nine and Barron is six. Even though dad may have a higher profile job than most fathers, the Burris family has the same challenges as any family balancing work and home life.
“We have a very busy schedule,” Henry admits. “When it is football season, I am away from 6:30 a.m. through 4 p.m. during the week, with games most weekends. I try and help out as much as I can but Nicole is really the one who helps keep it all together. She really is the perfect wife and mother.”
Family is a priority for both Henry and Nicole; it’s also the impetus for all the decisions they have made together. When Henry signed with the Redblacks in 2014, the Burrises decided to move from Calgary to Ottawa even though they had lived in Calgary for close to ten years. It also helped that most of Nicole’s family members are from the eastern United States, so they can come visit Nicole, Henry and the kids on a regular basis.
But if there’s a game scheduled, it may not be Henry they’re cheering for.
Like thousands of other local kids, Armond and Barron love and play hockey. That means Nicole and Henry are in the ranks of Ottawa’s hockey parents, shuttling their kids to early morning hockey practices and weekend games.
So what do the Burrises do when they have a little downtime and nothing on the schedule? “We love to sleep in and make a huge meal for breakfast. We might play games or watch movies. It is fine if we don’t even leave the house all day. It is about spending time together as a family.”
Henry Burris’s family concept also comes into play in his role as quarterback for the Ottawa Redblacks. After a 2-16 first season, it would have been easy to call the Redblacks a dysfunctional family. Despite all the adversity, though, coaches and players did not turn on each other and the word family was often used when describing the team. Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell explains.
“Family is a word we don’t take lightly with our football team,” he says. “We want everyone who plays, coaches and works for the Redblacks to feel valued and to become emotionally invested in the team and city. Henry loves playing here and being a part of this community. He lives what he preaches. There’s no better form of leadership.”
That leadership helped the Redblacks team earn a coveted spot at the Grey Cup in only its second year of existence. Ottawa would ultimately lose 26-20 to the Edmonton Eskimos; nevertheless, the team’s amazing 2015 season has been called one of the greatest improvements in Canadian Football League history, with Henry Burris receiving much of the credit.
It’s worth noting that, when the CFL awards were handed out at the end of last November, not only was Henry named most outstanding player for the second time in his career, he also collected the Tom Pate award for outstanding community service.
Even though he’s playing some of his best football at age 40, this Ottawa dad recognizes there’s life outside and beyond the gridiron. Henry is realistic about his age—He’ll be 41 June 4—and knows he won’t be in the game forever. Since he has a degree in communications and the nickname Smilin’ Hank thanks to his positive demeanor, it would be natural for the quarterback to move into broadcasting after his football career is done. He has already gotten some airtime, guest hosting the Ottawa CTV Morning Live television program and the New Country94 breakfast radio show.
Smilin’ Hank also lends his name and volunteers his time for various charitable causes, especially Big Brothers Big Sisters. “I grew up with the Big Brothers Big Sisters school programs in Spiro, Oklahoma. When I became a professional quarterback, I knew I wanted to give back in some way. Playing with the Green Bay Packers in 2001, quarterback Bret Favre had a charity softball tournament. I built upon that idea and started a softball game for Big Brothers Big Sisters when I started as quarterback in Calgary in 2005.”
The softball tournament evolved into a golf tournament, dinner and kids football camp and became known as the Henry Burris All-Star Weekend. In ten years, the event raised over a million dollars for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Calgary. Even though he and his family had moved to Ottawa, Henry still went back to help out in 2014. This year in May, Henry and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa presented the first annual All-Star Weekend in our city. An all-star kids sports camp and a golf tournament and dinner were part of the local fundraiser.
Despite all the good Henry has done on both sides of the country, and despite all he has achieved, he and Nicole are in a red-tape wrangle to become Canadian citizens. It’s a frustrating situation, considering he has played football in Canada for 19 years, since 1997, and the couple has lived together in Canada since 2005. The problem, it seems, is that Citizenship and Immigration Canada does not consider being a CFL player a full-time job, because the season is only six months of the year. Henry and Nicole justifiably argue they are year-round contributors, as they do a lot of charity work and have business interests in Calgary. Their kids are already Canadian citizens.
No matter what the future holds after Henry leaves the field and the cleats behind, he and his family want to stay in Ottawa. “Nicole and the kids love everything about Ottawa, except perhaps not the winter for Nicole,” he says with a chuckle. “The city has been great to us and we hope to be part of this community for a long time to come.”