WINNIPEG — Opposing players are rarely popular in Winnipeg, but quarterback Henry Burris expects a special level of animosity when he leads the Ottawa REDBLACKS on the field for their first regular-season game as a CFL franchise Thursday at Investors Group Field.
“I’m the most hated man in the prairies now I guess,” said Burris, who spurned an offer to quarterback the Blue Bombers.
He says he made the decision to be closer to family in Springfield, Mass., but also to be part of something historic – the return of Ottawa to the CFL.
Just about everyone you talked to Thursday cited Burris as the reason the REDBLACKS have a better shot this season than your average expansion franchise.
Burris tried to downplay his role.
“I appreciate that but for me, I go through my guys. I work my butt off to make sure that we’re prepared, because when were all on the same page, especially as an offence, it makes my job that much easier, especially with the guys that they brought in.”
He said he has a great receiving corps in players like Paris Jackson, Marcus Henry, Kierrie Johnson, Matt Carter and Dobson Collins.
“They brought in a lot of great weapons for me to get the ball to.”
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea may not know exactly what to expect from the REDBLACKS on Thursday but he says there are a lot of reasons, including Burris, not to look at them as just an expansion team.
“They’re going to be well coached,” he said. “Their GM didn’t hire guys that don’t have CFL experience. These are all guys that are very well-versed in the CFL game. They’re going to be well-prepared.”
“The expansion draft saw them get a lot of good players. They’ve got a quarterback that passed for 50,000 (yards) and ran for five (thousand). He was right up there for MVP of the league last year. I don’t look at them as an expansion team.”
He says he expects them to come out flying.
Ottawa head coach Rick Campbell, like O’Shea a rookie in the top coaching job in 2014, says no one really knows what will happen when the REDBLACKS take the field for the first time.
“That’s to be determined,” he said. “We have set high expectations for ourselves but we haven’t played a game yet.”
“Burris does give them an edge and they did their best to create that depth throughout the organization,” he said.
“That’s a big thing. Having Hank here is big for us. We wanted to make sure we had enough veteran layers and coaches around who had been through the battles in the CFL to give us a chance to win.”
Veteran Winnipeg defensive back Johnny Sears seconds the assessment of Burris, who took Hamilton to the Grey Cup final last year.
“They’ve got Henry Burris so you know they have a chance to win no matter who else they’ve got on the team, so that’s a challenge in itself,” said Sears, who will be competing against former teammate Jovon Johnson in Ottawa’s secondary.
Johnson said it will feel a little strange not to be playing with the Bombers, who decided they didn’t want the former all-star and CFL’s 2011 outstanding defensive player.
While describing it as “a slap in the face,” he said “that’s just the way the business goes and I’m cool with that.”
He’s also excited to be part of a new franchise.
“It’s a historic moment for our team, coming back in the league, a new name, new everything, and it’s also a historic moment for me because I haven’t been on the other sideline in quite some time.”
Burris, 39, shows no signs of slowing down. After 14 seasons in the CFL with Calgary, Saskatchewan and Hamilton, he has completed 3,672 passes for 51,526 yards and 324 touchdowns. He’s rushed for another 5,033 yards and 55 touchdowns.
He earned two Grey Cup rings with the Stampeders, one in 1998 as a backup and another in 2008 as the starter.
The REDBLACKS bring the nation’s capital back to the CFL for the first time since 2005. The Ottawa Renegades, the short-lived replacement for the Ottawa Rough Riders, folded after just four seasons due to mounting losses.
Despite being spurned by Burris, Winnipeg is happy with its final choice at quarterback, former Saskatchewan Roughriders backup Drew Willy.
The Bombers surprised many by dominating the Toronto Argonauts 45-21 last week with strong games from both their offence and defence.
Willy threw four touchdown passes in that win but says as far as preparing for Ottawa, he agrees they will have to wait and see Thursday.
“You kind of look at the (defensive) co-ordinator’s past and where the head coach has been and try to get some tendencies here and there but they could come out with something entirely different so really you’ve got to play what your eyes see,” he said.
He said they’ve prepared well for that with the unorthodox defence they had to compete against in Bomber training camp.