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GRIN AND BEAR IT: Smilin' Hank lands in Chicago as NFL intern coach

Less than two weeks after it was announced he was being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Henry Burris, the guy they call Smilin’ Hank, has joined the National Football League’s Chicago Bears.

The 45-year-old Burris, who won three Grey Cups in his 18-year CFL career, leading the Redblacks to a championship in 2016 and ending a 40-year drought for Ottawa football fans, will join the Bears as an intern under the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship. It’s not a full-time job, it’s a training job position, but there’s also the chance it leads to something else.

“I had goosebumps when I arrived in Chicago (Thursday),” said Burris. “When I got to the (team) facility, I had chills running up and down my spine. There’s nothing guaranteed with this, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’m very excited.”

Burris got COVID-19 tested Friday, got the playbook and met the coaching staff.

Last year, after Jaime Elizondo had quit as Ottawa’s offensive co-ordinator, former Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell (now with the B.C. Lions) reached out to Burris to see if he had any interest in getting involved in a coaching capacity. Burris said he wasn’t interested. NFL teams had also reached out to see if he had any interest. So he headed to the NFL Combine in late February, set up seven meetings and handed out seven resumés. He heard from the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and L.A. Chargers.

A month or so ago, Burris got a call from Bears head coach Matt Nagy — they talked for three hours.

Said Burris: “Coach Nagy said to me, ‘Hank, you need to see if this is actually what you want to do. Come down, experience this. I feel you’re going to be great. But are you ready to bite the bullet? I know you came off a successful career being a quarterback, but now you have to start all over and earn your stripes.’

“I told him, ‘Matt, I just want to learn, get better and help out the team any way possible.’ You have to get your feet wet before you go into battle. If there was any year I could do it, it was this year.”

Burris, who played for the Bears during the 2002 season, talked it over with his wife, Nicole, and decided it was too good to pass up. The Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship, named after late Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh, provides NFL coaching experience to talented minority college coaches, high school coaches and former players. Walsh introduced the concept to the league in 1987 when he brought a group of minority coaches into his San Francisco 49ers training camp.

“For me, it was a no-brainer to take advantage of the diversity program — with them trying to get more offensive coaches of colour into the league,” said Burris, who still has a job as a panelist on the CFL on TSN. “It’s a step forward for me. I’d be a fool to say I’m not interested. Opportunities happen for a reason. They sold me on it. It’s an internship program, it’s how a lot of guys work their way up and become a coach. I was like, ‘Why not, who knows what possibilities arise from this?’ With all the experience and knowledge I’ve been able to gain working with different coaches in different systems, I can help some of these young guys who are trying to get their careers going.”

A two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player (2010, 2015), Burris led teams to three Grey Cup championships (1998 and 2008 with Calgary and 2016 with Ottawa), earning Grey Cup MVP honours in 2008 and 2016. He ended his CFL career ranked third all-time with 63,639 passing yards and had 373 touchdown connections. He also spent time with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He had 12 games in which he threw for 400 yards and 93 games with more than 300 yards. He led the CFL in passing yards in three seasons: 2012 with 5,367 yards, 2013 with 4,927 yards and 2015 with 5,693 yards.

In the 2016 Grey Cup game, a 39-33 overtime win by the Redblacks over the Stampeders, Burris was spectacular. Full of painkillers and wearing a brace because of an injured knee, the then-41-year-old Burris completed 35 of 46 passes for 461 yards. Three of those pass completions went for touchdowns. He also rushed for two touchdowns.