A post-football life in Canada has become the epilogue to many of the CFL’s American players’ stories. As Canada turns 150, players share what it means to them to be Canadian.
By Chris O’Leary
As a player, Henry Burris enjoyed 17 Canada Day weekends. His 18th was different.
Burris spent the weekend in London, England, posing for selfies with a mix of curious fans and ex-pats that lit up like they’d seen an old friend when they saw him with the Grey Cup. The CFL was invited by Canada’s High Commission to be a part of London’s celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, and Burris was invited to be a representative of the league, and in a way, of his adopted country.
That this is his first Canada Day since he and his wife, Nicole (Hank brought her along to London with him), have attained permanent citizen status in this country, moving them a step closer to their long-held goal of Canadian citizenship, makes this trip even sweeter for him.
“It’s a dream come true,” he says of the opportunity to make this trip. “These are things you dream about, to have an opportunity to experience.”
Their citizenship process has been much longer and more expensive than they thought it would be, but they’d known for years that they wanted to stay in Canada. Their sons, Armand and Baron, were both born in Calgary while Burris played there.
“We never thought that it would take this long, but we were all-in when it came to doing whatever it took and we were resilient on making whatever needed to happen, happen,” he says.
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“Our kids are dual citizens and we wanted to become dual citizens with them. We want to show our allegiance to this country and what we’ve done for them and the fact that we’ve been able to give back and continue to give back, we want to continue those efforts.
“We knew that this was all about us being here, being able to one day get that other passport that my wife and I haven’t had but our kids have had and share the same freedoms that they have. We want to share some of the luxuries that they’re able to enjoy now, being able to say that they’re Canadian as well.
“For us that’s very important and it’s one of the things that we’re intent on completing in due time.”
Burris is the latest American to make the journey to Canada, simply looking to keep his football dream alive and finding so much more than that. A post-football life in Canada has become the epilogue to many of the CFL’s American players’ stories. As the Canada Day weekend unfolds, CFL.ca spoke with a handful of players who are in varying stages of that transition about their journeys, both professionally and personally and what it means to them to be Canadian as their adopted homeland turns 150.
Kavis Reed, Eskimos defensive back 1995-1999; GM of the Montreal Alouettes: “I had to run to my university library to do an encyclopedia search (he laughs), this is back in the day, about where Edmonton was. I tell this funny story that the first photo I saw was of Klondike Days and all the costumes and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going back in time’. I was really ignorant of the CFL and Edmonton itself.”
Belton Johnson, seven-year CFL offensive lineman: “Oh by no means did I ever expect to be in Canada at all. I had heard of Canada but I didn’t know anything about it, living in the States.
“I love football and when I went to BC (in 2006), the time zone difference killed me because I’m so close to my mom and my brother. We talk pretty much on a daily basis. When you go out to BC, say you have a game that starts at 7 BC time, it starts 9, 10 o’clock Central or Eastern time. Even before a game I couldn’t talk to my brother and I wanted to talk with them after the game but if the game ended at 10 p.m. BC time, it’s 1, 2 in the morning and everyone back home is asleep. That was tough dealing with that, plus with the rainy weather in BC, it was just a bad mix for me. I asked for Wally to let me go and he granted me my wish.”
Shawn Lemon, Argonauts defensive end: “My first trip was Winnipeg. That was the end of the season in 2011. I just remember going to customs and wondering, ‘Where do I walk now?’ You get there and you don’t know what to do. You’re filling out paper, you don’t know exactly what to put on the paper. When you get there you don’t know what to say. You expect them to know that you’re here to play football. That was my first time coming to another country. It was a weird process but you get used to it.
“(The Bombers) had someone (pick me up) but you don’t see them until you get past customs. I just kind of walked with everyone else that was flying. I went to get my bags, I see the guy from Winnipeg, Ken Moll, I believe that was his name.
“It wasn’t snowing but it was pretty chilly.”
“I got some tickets in Edmonton. I was picking up my girlfriend, my wife now, from the airport and it was my first time driving in Canada and I see the max is like 100-something. I didn’t realize it was kilometres until I got the ticket in the mail.”
Adarius Bowman, Eskimos slotback: “Before I came here I thought everything was Toronto. Like, Toronto, Canada was all of Canada. I didn’t know there was a Calgary or an Ontario. I just thought it was Toronto, Canada. I didn’t know anything about a Saskatchewan or an Edmonton.”
Burris: “It was pretty much either (the CFL) or take some free agency shots in the NFL, but I wanted something that was more concrete. I did some research on Calgary and saw how successful they were and the fact that Doug Flutie was their quarterback, Jeff Garcia was their current starter and Doug had just moved on. They’d been playing for Grey Cup Championships and I saw the makings of a quarterback factory. I wanted to be a part of that.
Adjusting to a new country
Lemon: “It was the loonies and the toonies, that was weird to me. I caught myself losing a lot of money, not understanding that that’s a dollar or that’s two dollars. I lost a lot of money. When you’re in the States you get change and it’s like quarters and stuff like that but this was actually a dollar.”
Burris: “ I was at a burger joint when I first arrived and they said, ‘Do you want some poutine with that?’ I’m thinking, ‘What are you offering me right now?’ There are some words in the US where it’s similar to poutine and it doesn’t mean food (he laughs). I heard that and asked what the heck they’re talking about and they said it’s curds and gravy over fries. I said, ‘Oh, no, I just like my fries crispy with ketchup.’”
Lemon: “(The metric system) did mess with me. I got some tickets in Edmonton. I was picking up my girlfriend, my wife now, from the airport and it was my first time driving in Canada and I see the max is like 100-something. I didn’t realize it was kilometres until I got the ticket in the mail. It was a huge ticket. I had like $360 in tickets in Edmonton and I didn’t realize it until I (moved) to Calgary. I got a car and had to get my tags and you had to pay your tickets.”
Reed: “It didn’t feel like it was a foreign country whatsoever until I started driving on Highway 2 (the highway that connects Edmonton to Calgary) and I saw the sign that says gas 49 cents. I thought, ‘Oh my God this is unreal. Gas is 49 cents a gallon.’ Then I saw the mileage sign and it says 100 and I thought you could drive 100 miles per hour.”
“You start to realize that schools didn’t close, that the power wasn’t going to go out. You didn’t have to go to the supermarket and buy everything and go into survival mode. That life goes on.”
Kavis Reed on dealing with the cold
“I thought, ‘This is going to be unreal. They’re really liberal, cheap gas and you could speed all you want’. It’s those little nuances that I found out later.”
When it starts to feel like home
Bowman: “One of the things that really made me stay up this way was, I wouldn’t say my first year or two, I would say after that. You kind of start being around the city a little more and you start realizing a little more about the health care and how beneficial that is. You start realizing how the education is a little better. People are nicer.
“Just the everyday lifestyle was what really caught on with me. The weather was never a great thing in the beginning — still isn’t now — but you learn how to dress after a while.
Johnson: (Then-Winnipeg GM Brandan) Taman called me in to the front office (in 2006) to sit down and visit with him. He asked if I knew (then-Riders GM) Eric Tillman. He said, ‘Belton we really love you but you’re a young guy. If you want to play right away I think Saskatchewan might be the place for you’.
“I’m sitting there thinking the whole time, ‘Saskatchewan? Where the heck is that at?’
“Tillman was telling me about Saskatchewan. He said, ‘Belton I know you’re a country boy from Mississippi and I think Regina, Saskatchewan would be the right fit for you. Just the community, the population and just the wide open space of the prairies here’.
“He sold me on it. I came out and pretty much the rest was history. Once I was here in 2006, I fell in love with the place. As soon as I was flying over Saskatchewan, you could see the farming land and in Mississippi we do a lot of farming and the flat land reminded me of the flats of the Mississippi Delta, where my grandmother, my dad and a bunch of my aunts are from. I was sold as soon as I got here.”
Reed: “During the (first) season I met a lot of people that really embraced me. Being a football player helped because everyone loved the Eskimos at that time. You met a lot of friends outside the locker room and people would help you find a place to stay.
“I ate at Wendy’s or McDonald’s every other day and got to know the managers and the people there. You go into the mall and you get to know familiar faces and different people in the stores. That really showed that it was a friendly, open-minded city that really loved people. It embraced differences and embraced diversity and felt almost like a relief and a comfort. So I knew by about September, October that it was going to be a place I wanted to stay. And it didn’t hurt that I met my future wife. It just felt right.”
Burris: “I knew by the end of (1998) that I wanted to stay up here. I enjoyed it so much. I was living in such a great city and starting to find out that the culture here was very similar to what I grew up with in Oklahoma. There were opportunities up here that were similar to Oklahoma, that being oil and gas.
“Truly, once I got my family and I knew my wife was content on being in Calgary, once we signed from Sask over to Calgary to 2005, I was all on board. She enjoyed Calgary and I did as well and that’s when we knew we were going to be in Canada for a long time.”
Dealing with the cold
Bowman: “It’s no good (laughs). It was just like, why? Why are we practising?
“I remember the first time it snowed (playing in Regina in 2008). I ended up being late to practice. Most of the time it snowed in my life, everybody was off work. So I thought the city was shut down. I was laying in the bed. I remember (Darian) Durant calling me saying, ‘Hey bro, where you at?’ . . . ‘We gotta go to practice today’?”
Johnson: “Whoo, good Lord, good Lord, good Lord. I didn’t really stay here those first couple of years. If we weren’t in the playoffs, off home you go. And again, Mississippi in the wintertime, it’s probably 60, 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I would wear shorts at home in Mississippi and not even think about it.
“Up here, man (laughs). I’d never dealt with two weeks of minus-40 until probably 2010. I didn’t even want to go outside. I feel so bad for my kids in the wintertime because I’m not a winter guy. I know they want to go outside. I know they want to get on the skidoos. I’m not that guy. I feel bad for them. I tell my wife, ‘You’re a Canadian, you do it. Spring and summer gets here trust me, they’ll be outside every day. I feel bad for them. I’m not going ice fishing at all, trust me.”
Reed: “I didn’t deal with it very well. Ronny Lancaster actually allowed me to miss a practice because I didn’t dress properly and I couldn’t adapt to the cold.
“We played in Calgary in the playoffs and I was hoping that the game would just end. First, I asked the stupid question of if they were going to cancel the game because it was so cold (laughs). It was not a good adjustment.
“You start to realize that schools didn’t close, that the power wasn’t going to go out. You didn’t have to go to the supermarket and buy everything and go into survival mode. That life goes on. Through observation and asking questions you realize that there are times of day to go out and how long to stay out. I taught myself to skate. I’m a d-minus skater and got into a little bit of tobogganing. I started to try to be like the Romans and do some of the things that they did.”
Life in Canada
Bowman: “I’m more familiar here and it’s definitely a loving and warm place. I could see myself raising kids around here. The health care and education is amazing. When you start thinking long term, why wouldn’t you want help (your family) with those kinds of things?
“Not just that, the ethnicity, the people. Canada, I haven’t been everywhere but in Edmonton, it’s a very loving community. It seems like everyone takes care of each other. When the sports are hot they’re all in, but even when they’re not hot they’re still right there supporting us. For me, it’s just a very warm and loving place.”
Johnson: “Somewhere in between those years (of playing football and working for Saskatchewan Government Insurance in the off-seasons) I met my wife, Robin. We actually met at a club, The Drink. It was a Busta Rhymes concert. We actually met out on the dance floor where I asked her to go to a movie and since that movie (he laughs) we bought a condo together, so I was able to stay up here and we shared everything.
“But I think I would have stayed (anyway). I met so many people, building so many different relationships, on personal levels with people and at SGI and even doing the radio I built so many professional relationships. I probably would have stayed here, but the thing is now, married with a wife and two kids, I don’t even think about going back to the US, other than when the exchange rate hits pretty low.”
Reed, who kept his family in Edmonton while his career moved him across the CFL: “Edmonton’s crime rate is nowhere near what it can be in (similar-sized) US centres. Going to the schools, you felt the school system was a lot safer. It was more of a peace of mind to raise your kids here, relative to some of the areas that I’ve been exposed to in my life in the U.S.
“I feel that when they go to school they are in a safe environment. That’s what raising kids is, (giving them) an environment that allows them to grow up in a healthy– that’s going to create a situation that will maximize their growth potential. I felt very strongly that given the cultural aspects of Canada relative to the US, they had the better opportunity here to really grow and identify their individualism.”
Lemon: “Canadians are a little nicer. They’re more interested in understanding the different lifestyles, as far as living in the U.S. It’s different everywhere you go. (Canadian Argos defensive back) Matt Black, guys like him. He’s been to school in the States. He went to college in the States and his wife is from the U.S. but it’s different, it’s hard to explain. He’s interested to know more about the person, how you grew up and where you came from, stuff like that.”
Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons: “I guess it was just this overwhelming sense of gratitude and thankfulness, of peace, that extra sense of belonging. It kind of gave you that Grey Cup Championship feeling that everything is completed everything is done.
“I considered myself Canadian for so many years, truthfully, the comedy is I hadn’t really gone for it because i thought of myself more as Canadian than American anyway. I’d lived here just as long, and I really didn’t need to get the paper to prove it. At some point it just came, this overwhelming sense that I should complete the circle and complete the process.”
What does it mean to be Canadian?
Burris: It’s a lifestyle, it’s a belief. When you talk about true freedoms and equality and things like that…I know there’s racism everywhere…more so up here, you see signs of it but not anything close to what we dealt with in the U.S.
“The fact that there is more equality here and people make an effort up here to help improve that, for me, it’s great to see those types of things. A country like Canada gives you hope.
“In Canada if you work hard, there are so many opportunities available all over this country. Hopefully one day we want (our kids) to know they’re growing up in a place where they can make their dreams come true and they’ll be inspired and continue to work hard to make that their reality one day as well.”
Bowman: Hockey. All Canadians know about hockey. I didn’t even know there was a hockey team in the state of Tennessee. But I think every Canadian knows about hockey. Every Canadian has worn a pair of skates, they’ve tried some form of hockey. A lot of us Americans, we never thought to think about hockey until we came to Canada. A true Canadian, they know hockey.”
Johnson: “I think it’s the same as in the U.S. Just being proud, a lot of pride. I know when the (Canadian) national anthem comes on I’m right there singing too. Had you asked me to sing the Canadian anthem when I was in Mississippi, I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about.
“And at least from around these parts in Saskatchewan, it’s a lot of blue collar people. That’s how I see Canada is a lot of hard working, blue collar people.”
Reed: “It really is a truly diverse society. If I had to encapsulate it in one word, there is a lot of tolerance. This is such a tolerant culture and it’s very resilient. Not just because it survives the winter but it is so hearty, to a sense that everyone wants to roll their sleeves up and get things done. One word to me would be tolerant, which allows it to be a tremendous place to raise a family and live there.”