Country style

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:30 AM ET

Henry Burris was introduced as the Calgary Stampeders' new starting QB last month. Stamps fans may think they know all about Burris, who played in Calgary from 1997-99. But they probably don't know he's a 'country kid' and an aspiring screenwriter. Sun football writer Dan Toth takes a closer look at the man known as Smilin' Hank.

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That king-sized Stetson Henry Burris modelled as he touched down last week in the Stampede City was a tribute to his country roots as much as a tip of the hat to Calgary's cowboy heritage.

The Stampeders' new thoroughbred quarterback grew up in the tiny town of Spiro, Okla. -- two hours southeast of Tulsa -- with just one traffic light and more cows than cars.

"I was just a basic country kid like somebody who grew up in Drumheller or some place like that," notes Burris, 29, from his off-season home in Texas.

"I grew up in a country setting, so as far as wearing cowboy hats and Wranglers, that's not new to me. Plus, living in Houston, it's the same thing.

"It's part of daily life down here.

"I grew up on a farm and learned the true value of what life was all about.

"Work hard and you have to be dedicated to what you do. I still have both my parents, thankfully, and they helped me get to where I am today."

Henry Burris Sr. and mom Caresse -- who calls her only son by his middle name, Armand, to avoid confusion, while his friends prefer Hank as his handle -- both work 9-to-5 jobs.

Their evenings and weekends were filled by caring for the family's cattle ranch and crops.

Henry Jr., along with sisters Trina and Charlita, like most rural folks, were never afraid to dirty their hands to make it all work.

"It was a small, local operation," says the QB, who should feel right at home this season with a mustang galloping across the side of his helmet.

"We'd sell our cattle at auctions and the grains and soy beans we'd harvest and sell those, too.

"It wasn't a huge operation but it was something we all enjoyed doing and it was something I grew into. I came of age at a young age but haven't been able to help out since I've been away."

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When not busying himself as a youngster on the family farm, there was always football, a way of life in that part of the U.S.

"Football was like Friday Night Lights where I grew up," Burris says, referring to the recent movie about high school football in Texas.

"Pretty much the whole town was shut down on Fridays and wherever our team was playing, the whole town would go.

"It was a part of our lifestyle and you weren't 'in' unless you were on the football team. It was a part of what we grew up and became accustomed to doing. It was a great time.

"The guys all grew up playing. When you're born there, they don't care about the kid's name, they ask what position he'll play."

Burris began his involvement in organized football in Grade 6, playing both ways until he moved to high school, winning a permanent position at pivot.

"I was a hitter," Burris recalls. "They had me at middle linebacker, outside linebacker, receiver, but I always played quarterback, too. In my junior year of high school, once I got the starting quarterback job, that's the only position I played."

Burris worked on the family farm until he graduated high school and headed to Temple University on the mean streets of Philadelphia.

"Wow. Shell-shocked," Burris recalls of his first trip as a small-town boy to the so-called City of Brotherly Love in 1993.

"There definitely was crime.

I saw stick-ups occur, shootings and big riots occur but fortunately I avoided it. It's something that if you don't have to experience it, you don't want to. We were right in the so-called 'hood.'

"It didn't matter your colour or your name. You had to be on your toes and be in protective mode at all times. You had to take care of yourself and that came with accepting responsibility and being away from home. I understood that going in and going there helped me survive on my own."

The Temple Owls struggled, even in Burris's capable hands, although the young Oklahoman established 20 school passing records and set a new Big East mark for completions while placing second on the all-time passing yards list.

"College life was great, except for football," shrugs Burris, pointing out the best part about Temple was meeting Nicole, whom he married a year ago.

His bride is from Maryland was an all-American lacrosse player. Nicole is so keen on the game, in fact, she dragged her husband to the recent National Lacrosse League all-star game at the Saddledome a day after Burris signed for his second stint with the Stampeders.

"That's another perk about living in Calgary," suggests Burris.

"She'll get to see her favourite sport. We were talking about buying season tickets to the Roughnecks."

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Burris's sporting exposure hasn't been limited to football and his wife's love of lacrosse.

Henry Sr., now a social worker within the public school system, was a pitcher scouted by the Boston Red Sox in the 1960s. He instilled in his son a love of baseball.

Young Henry's high school baseball team even won the state title in his sophomore year.

The ace pitcher on that team, Ryan Franklin, is now on the Seattle Mariners staff.

"Since my dad played baseball, we used to play catch in the yard all the time but, as I was growing up, I loved football," Burris says.

"We used to watch the Dallas Cowboys play all the time. They were my favourite team growing up. I just started gaining a love for football and throwing the pigskin and wanting to be like Warren Moon and Joe Montana.

"I finally went to the Emmitt Smith football camp where the best players went and I ended up winning the MVP of the camp. It was the big-time. All the major schools like Notre Dame, Texas A&M, all the major schools were looking at the kids.

I took advantage of the opportunity and it made some good things happen."

While Burris had one eye on the NFL, he also grew an appreciation of that wild brand of football played in such far-flung places as Calgary, where he signed his first pro contract in 1997.

"I used to watch the CFL on TV," Burris notes.

"Billy Joe Tolliver and the Shreveport Pirates. Damon Allen and the Memphis Mad Dogs. Danny Barrett and the Calgary Stampeders. Condredge Holloway and the Toronto Argos. Dieter Brock in Winnipeg.

I used to watch all those guys.

"Seeing those guys play definitely opened my eyes to what was being played up north and it was an exciting game to see."

In addition to signing with the Stampeders in '97, Burris said his first taste of Canadian life, other than a family trip to Niagara Falls, was also a surprise.

"My first time in Calgary, I was shocked because I didn't realize everything was so up to date and everyone was so hip," Burris says.

"I was thinking like, 'Calgary will just be getting colour TV' but I loved everything about it."

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Burris earned his degree in communications and broadcasting at Temple, where he befriended Jason George, an actor who has since appeared in several movies.

"I love to write," Burris says.

"Right now, I'm in the process of writing a screenplay that could be a movie. I'm writing about a polygamist cult. When I don't understand something, I like to read and research it and write about it. When I'm finished writing, I'll have gained an understanding what it's all about. The story's all fiction but it helps me develop a neat story line and hopefully by this season I'll have enough pages written to get it critiqued and get it ready to distribute it.

"Life's all about experiencing new things and living out your dreams and ambitions and for me to play football was one.

"Writing and literature and grammar were my worst subjects in school but now writing is one of my favourite things to do."

He got his first taste of showbiz when asked to show off his on-field talents for director Oliver Stone's film Any Given Sunday, although none of the footage was used in the movie.

"It's amazing how stuff like that happens," says Burris.


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