CALGARY — A dozen years ago, Henry Burris was going through many of the same emotions that Drew Tate is likely feeling these days.
Burris, then just shy of his 25th birthday, had been anointed as the No. 1 quarterback on the Saskatchewan Roughriders depth chart, replacing Reggie Slack, after signing with the Riders following two developmental seasons with the Calgary Stampeders.
Tate, of course, is in much the same position. After Burris was traded to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this off-season, Tate’s path to the full-time starting quarterback job with the Stampeders was cleared.
And the man he’s replacing has some words of advice for his former understudy.
“Well, the first thing is to develop a schedule and never change that schedule,” said Burris on Thursday before heading out onto a Calgary golf course for his seventh annual Henry Burris All-Star Weekend golf tournament.
“Week in and week out, you have to teach your body how to react to certain things. But the most important thing for Drew is to just be himself. He can’t be me. Don’t try to replace me. Be who you are and play your game, work hard to get better each and every week, develop that relationship with his teammates and show them that you can be a leader on this team and do good things to help this team be successful.”
That was the attitude Burris tried to take back in 2000, and it paid off with 4,647 yards in passing (the fourth highest total of his career) and 30 touchdowns.
“You know what? I didn’t even know anybody was looking at me,” recalled Burris. “I was just so excited to play the game, to be a starting quarterback. My attitude was that I was going to go out there and show people that, even though I’m young and inexperienced, I enjoy the game and I’m going to put in the extra time and study to make myself a better quarterback, both physically and mentally.
“I was going to do whatever it took to go out there on that field and make something happen. I went out there and had fun. I didn’t focus on what the media or fans were saying. The most important thing was to show up at each and every practice and game day to make myself and my team better.”
Damon Allen, the CFL’s all-time passing leader, went through it prior to the 1988 season with the Edmonton Eskimos. His first two years, he’d served as a backup to Matt Dunigan (albeit a backup who played far more than Tate did in three years behind Burris), but with Dunigan’s trade to the B.C. Lions, Allen took over the starting job.
“Even as a backup, you actually have the mindset of a starter anyway,” suggested Allen (who wound up losing the starting job that season to Tracy Ham because of an injury).
“You always prepare like you’re starting. As for Tate? The pressure he’ll have is being compared to Henry Burris in terms of how well he plays, and the pressure he puts on himself to go out there and play well. Because there ain’t no lookin’ around now. You’re the guy. It takes time, and a lot of times you don’t have an awful lot of patience. When you’re in a winning tradition, people hope that it continues to be that way, right? Regardless of who lines up behind centre. But it’s an exciting time for him.”
Allen, like Burris, said it’s important for Tate to not try to play outside of his comfort zone this season.
“He just needs to play within himself, continue to be confident, continue to learn the position,” said Allen. “And get ready to play every week. That’s the most difficult thing to do as a starter, to take the pounding week in and week out. Yeah, we saw him a game here, a game there. But to play a gruelling 18-game schedule with a target on your back is totally different. We’ll see how tough he is.”
As you might expect, Burris will be paying particular attention to his old teammates, particularly his old backup, this season in between his duties with the Ticats. And he’s wishing 16 games worth of success for Tate.
“Exactly,” said Burris with a chuckle. “Aug. 9 (when the Stampeders visit Hamilton) and Oct. 20 (when the Ticats are in Calgary), those are the two games I don’t want him to show up in. But he’ll be fine. I’ve said it time and time again, the kid has all the intangibles to be a successful quarterback in this league and now he’s getting his opportunity. I’m happy for him.”