For Chicago Bears historians, 2002 provided two historical footnotes:
- A full season with home games in Champaign, Ill., while Soldier Field was renovated
- One-time starting quarterback Henry Burris
The rest of Burris’s football career has been anything but a footnote. After his short run in the NFL, Burris returned to the Canadian Football League and launched one of the greatest careers in that league’s history.
Including his first four seasons of professional football from 1997 to 2000, Burris has played 17 years in the CFL and is third in league history in passing yards. He is all over the league’s record book, has won the league’s Most Outstanding Player award twice, led his teams to the Grey Cup championship twice (plus once as a reserve), and won the game’s MVP award twice.
His life in the CFL has led to a life for his family in Canada; his two children are Canadian citizens and he and his wife are in a long battle for their own citizenship.
No matter what happens in that fight, his place in CFL history is secure, with the pièce de résistance coming this past Sunday: a Grey Cup championship at age 41, making him the oldest quarterback in league history to win the league title.
Burris was no bystander, either: he bagged the game’s MVP with 461 yards passing, three touchdowns, and two rushing touchdowns. His 18-yard TD pass in overtime gave the three-year-old Ottawa Redblacks its final 39-33 margin over his former team, the Calgary Stampeders.
“What else can they say right now?” Burris said after the game. “For all the things they say I can’t do — the ‘Good Hank, Bad Hank,’ I mean — what’s bad in winning a championship with an organization that’s only been in existence for three years?”
Burris’s performance was all the more incredible considering he tweaked his knee in warmups, an injury so bad that he attended the team’s victory parade on crutches.
“Man, I’ll tell you, I felt almost like Willis Reed with the New York Knicks when he hurt his leg and, all of the sudden he limped back on the court and helped lead his team to victory,” Burris said. “It was a crazy situation.”
Speaking of crazy situations, the Bears have had 16 starting quarterbacks in the 14 seasons since Burris’s one year in Chicago. He has had unquestionably the most success of any of them: he is 7th all-time in passing yards for any outdoor football player in North America — i.e. players from the NFL, CFL, and the old USFL — trailing only Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Warren Moon, and Drew Brees among NFL players.
It’s an imperfect comparison, obviously — CFL players throw for more yards than their NFL counterparts, with Burris racking up 11 4,000-yard seasons. No one is claiming Burris is a better player than Manning, Favre, Moon, or Brees.
But here’s the thing: he doesn’t have to be. His success is a great reminder that football extends beyond the NFL.
Bears fans best remember Burris as the team’s starter in the finale of a particularly horrific 2002 season. He took over for an injured Chris Chandler and started his first and only NFL game in a 15-0 loss to the Buccaneers.
This was no easy challenge: the Bucs had the league’s top-rated defense and were headed to a Super Bowl championship.
“It’s a good opportunity for me and a continuation of my process, really being my first year in this league, getting a chance to play,” Burris said in the week leading up to the game. “I’m really going through the same process that all the guys from first-round draft picks to free agents to guys from Canada. I’m representing those guys right now.”
The undrafted Burris had a game to forget, no doubt. He completed 7 of 19 passes for 78 yards with four interceptions and was replaced by Cory Sauter. No highlights of his time in Chicago made it to YouTube, but you can see two of his four picks on this 2002 Bucs defense reel.
“The only thing I can say is what happened, happened,” Burris said after that game. “Now it’s on to Europe and see you all in training camp. I’m going to continue to work hard, but I'm not going to give up.”
He finished his NFL career with 18 completions on 51 attempts for a 35.3 completion percentage, with 207 yards, three touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, all with the Bears. His inauspicious starting job debut landed him on that oft-repeated and quite masochistic Bears fan list: Starting Quarterbacks Since Jim McMahon.
But while many other QBs on that list saw their professional careers vanish not long after leaving Chicago, Burris returned to his first professional league and has had the kind of career most football players can only imagine. He is under contract for the 2017 season and has not yet made a decision about retirement.
Whenever he does retire, his next stop will likely be the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. His CFL stats: 267 games, 62.5 completion percentage, 63,227 yards, 374 touchdowns, 227 interceptions.
So kudos to Henry Burris! And if you want to support the battle he and his wife Nicole are facing to become Canadian citizens, you can sign this change.org petition.