Courtesy of the New England Patriots/Eric J. Adler
When Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer called Jake Burt last Tuesday to alert the Boston College big man he was officially about to become the first overall selection of the 2021 CFL Draft, there might have only been one person more genuinely thrilled than immediate family within earshot of the call from Hamilton.
Was it a former teammate? No.
A high school coach? No.
A two-time Grey Cup champion, the fifth-leading pass catcher in CFL history and a fellow Boston College alum? Yes.
Darren Flutie knows a thing or two about what it means to catch passes in Black and Gold, as Burt plans to do starting this July.
Despite only playing four seasons with the club after time in BC and Edmonton, Flutie’s name and No. 82 jersey still shines on display across fan’s backs at Tim Horton’s Field each game day, even 20 years after his retirement.
Days after being selected, I caught up with Burt and discovered the iconic Flutie sibling duo that highlighted many memorable CFL moments of the ’90’s had a direct impact on Burt’s decision to chase the Canadian Football League dream.
“I realized that Doug and Darren were big there because when I told my grandmother I was at Boston College with Troy (Doug’s nephew, Darren’s son) I saw her reaction and excitement. That was one of my first tastes of realizing, wow the CFL is huge,” Burt said.
The choice to make a run at the CFL Draft did not come automatically or overnight though. Instead, Troy Flutie, who spent some of his youngest years in Hamilton watching his dad scamper through defences and evade would-be tacklers pushed the envelope daily as the two made their way through the NCAA experience together.
“Troy was always pumping the dialogue. It’s always been a conversation around me because I’m from Canada,” Burt said.
“Would you go play in the CFL? Yes, of course. He would always talk about his dad’s love for Canada and the CFL, talking about his dad’s favourite memories ever in the CFL. Talking about how great a career he had there, how much fun he had playing and the high level of competition. I heard that all the time for four years at BC. I had heard the stories of Doug and been around him enough to understand it.
“Now Darren’s reached out and we’ve been texting back and forth a bit and he just keeps telling me how this was the best time of his life and he would never take back going to Canada. That opportunity was amazing for him to keep playing football and he loved the city of Hamilton and Troy loved living there when he was young. His parents still talk about it.”
Darren Flutie was more than just a memory, or a teammate’s dad. He was a present part of the conversation with Burt’s family as parents would meet at the team hotel home or away to watch their sons go to battle for the Eagles.
“I first got excited when my son Troy told me that (Burt is) Canadian and he could get drafted,” Flutie said.
“Someone said he was from Regina and I thought, ‘Ahh geez, maybe he’ll go to Saskatchewan.’ I didn’t know who was drafting where this year but I got really excited when I heard the Ticats drafted him because I remember talking to him and his parents about the CFL and my experiences playing up there and what it meant to me and my family. The irony was crazy that after all this he went to Hamilton.”
Asked why Hamilton holds a special place in his heart, one that Flutie clearly hopes Burt will one day understand, the genuine reflection of a player who felt more at home than ever was palpable through the Zoom call.
“Hamilton was unique in so many ways. First thing is it was closest to home so it was so much more convenient for my family and wife to go back and forth,” he said.
“The people that played on that team, coach (Ron) Lancaster, the fans in Hamilton all made it special and wherever you went in Hamilton they knew who you were. It was just a great place to play, the fans supported us so much. You could hang out there after a big game and you’d sign autographs for two hours, they just wouldn’t leave.”
When the pick was announced my mock draft went up in flames — what else is new — and I immediately began to wonder how Hamilton offensive coordinator Tommy Condell would creatively use the unique size and speed combination Burt presents, while Flutie quipped sarcastically that his first concern was more self-centred.
“The first thing I thought when he got drafted was, ‘Geeze I hope he doesn’t wear No. 82.’ I don’t want anybody wearing my number, but I guess a Boston College guy wearing it wouldn’t be bad,” he said.
If anyone is going to wear Flutie’s old number it might be best suited to the young man whose game he knows best after keeping a close eye on Burt through his college progression.
“He’s a tight end coming from college going to the CFL where I think of running starts and motions,” Flutie said.
“I’m not a big guy, so I wasn’t involved in the blocking schemes and a lot of the slots when I played weren’t involved in blocking much but I thought of Ray Elgaard when I first heard of Jake being drafted. When I was coming up in the CFL, Ray Elgaard was THE guy. He was this big guy that used his strength and size to get off press and could get up to outreach people for the ball. I think Jake has all that in him. He can out-muscle smaller defenders and out run defenders of the same size.”
The obvious question to anyone who saw ‘TE’ listed as the position drafted first overall last week was where Burt would fit in. Most big bodied, tight end types in the CFL primarily become a fullback with lead block responsibilities and the odd pass off play action to the flats as a reward for all the dirty work done between the tackles, but Burt is different.
He’s not Rob Cote, Calvin McCarty or Declan Cross. He’s taller, quicker and has more experience catching the ball down the field rendering the typecasting of ‘fullback by association’ irrelevant. Although Flutie believes Burt’s perfect CFL fit relies on his ability to run, run some more and keep running in preparation for the uptempo Canadian game.
“One of the first things I said to Jake was to think about leaning yourself up and try to be a bit quicker and faster. That hybrid that you talk about, that’s what I would’ve always wanted to be,” Flutie said.
“Like, six-foot-two, 195, not the big muscle guy, lean enough that you had speed and quickness but big enough to be able to make plays and still be able to block and make tackles. Jake is that hybrid so they could go double tights and pound it with him or play him in the slot and ask him to run routes.”
“When I was coming up in the CFL, Ray Elgaard was THE guy. He…used his strength and size to get off press and could get up to outreach people for the ball. I think Jake has all that in him.” — Darren Flutie on Ticats’ No. 1 pick Jake Burt
There will undoubtedly be bumps in the road for Burt. No top pick arrives, dominates the league and wins the Grey Cup in short order, a fact the refreshingly transparent Regina native willingly acknowledges. So what are the best ways to set yourself up for success as a receiver in Hamilton? Of course Flutie had a few notes at the ready, including an ingrained Labour Day bias on where to call home.
“When we were in Hamilton as a family I liked living closer to Niagara Falls. I just didn’t want to be close to Toronto. They were our rivals and Doug lived in Mississauga so I didn’t want to go that way,” he said.
“We went to Stoney Creek and we loved living there and made great friends. The best piece of advice I would give Jake is don’t go up there and think, ‘Well I was in the NFL and now I’m in the CFL, I’m going to light it up and all I have to do is show up and play.’
“If you go into Canada and think I’m so much better than these guys you’ll be gone after a couple weeks like so many other big names. He has to go in, work his ass off, get better, think about making the team and then go from there.”
Flutie, who has been in contact with current Ticats Head Coach and former Grey Cup champion teammate Orlondo Steinauer admits he’s missed taking in the CFL in-person lately and can’t wait to re-visit Hamilton as soon as possible to celebrate all the CFL has to offer and cheer on his new favourite Ticats pass catcher.
It’s not a bad way to start your CFL career, with an iconic player of the same position group sitting in the stands, directly supporting your every cut, catch and score. It’s a surreal situation not lost on Burt.
“I was excited from the beginning because I was getting my CFL story from two superstars of the league’s history so I couldn’t have seen the league through a better lens and I’m so happy that is who I was getting my impression from,” Burt said.
Despite all his enthusiasm, it’s understandable Burt wouldn’t be an expert in Tiger-Cats history. We wrapped as I implored him to watch the ’98 and ’99 Grey Cups to imagine what’s possible and appreciate Darren’s work before reminding Burt the last time Hamilton won the Grey Cup, a Boston College receiver was a CFL All-Star. Since then, the team has lost championships in 2013, 2014, and now 2019.
Unfazed and fueled with a wry grin Burt replied, “sounds like they just needed that one piece maybe to close the deal.”