Two years after being told by the Calgary Stampeders he wasn't good enough, Henry Burris is returning to the Grey Cup.
The 38-year-old quarterback rallied the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from a 14-point deficit en route to a wild 36-24 win over the Toronto Argonauts in the East Division final Sunday afternoon.
Burris cut Toronto's half-time lead to 24-17 with a late TD strike, then led Hamilton to a 27-24 advantage heading into the fourth. After watching Argos star quarterback Ricky Ray tear it up in the first half, Burris outperformed Ray in the second to lead Hamilton to its first Grey Cup berth since '99.
"Somebody pinch me, I still think I'm dreaming right now," Burris said. "For the past four years I've been through a lot, guys.
"One organization told me, basically, I wasn't good enough and traded me to Hamilton. And during the course of this year people doubted what I could do and to come out here with our team and accomplish this is huge."
Burris's 14-yard TD pass to Greg Ellingson capped a 68-yard march to open the second half and made it 24-24. Burris then drove Hamilton to set up Luca Congi's 23-yard field goal for a 27-24 lead entering the fourth.
Burris was especially cool when Hamilton took possession at its own 38 with 6:55 remaining. He marched the Ticats to the Toronto 14-yard line — hitting Bakari Grant on a key 25-yard completion on second-and-19 — to set up Congi's 20-yard boot to make it 30-24 with 1:14 remaining.
Ray marched Toronto from its 35 to the Hamilton 44 before turning the ball over on downs with 53 seconds remaining. Chad Owens fielded Josh Bartel's punt on the game's final play but fumbled with Ticats' special-teams star Marc Beswick recovering in the end zone.
Burris's heroics came before a raucous Rogers Centre gathering of 35,418 — that included embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — for the first East final between the longtime rivals since '86. That's the largest CFL attendance in the facility since over 50,000 spectators witnessed Toronto's 35-22 win over Calgary in the 100th Grey Cup game last November.
Much like Toronto's historic Grey Cup win, the atmosphere inside Rogers Centre on Sunday was electric. Horns blared loudly throughout, Ticats supporters, who clearly outnumbered their Toronto counterparts, chanted the traditional "Argos Suck" refrain while the Double Blue faithful countered with "Let's Go Argos."
"It was unbelievable our fan support," Ticats coach Kent Austin said. "I thought we were playing at home."
Burris was the CFL's outstanding player with Calgary in 2010 but was replaced by Drew Tate as the starter the following season. The Stampeders dealt Burris to Hamilton and although Burris was the league's leading passer in 2011, the Ticats struggled to a 6-12 record.
Hamilton opened 2013 with a new coach (Austin), a plethora of youngsters and having to play its home games in Guelph, Ont., while a new stadium was being built. Burris again led the CFL in passing this year and guided the Ticats (10-8) to second in the East behind front-running Toronto (11-7).
Burris was a key figure in Hamilton's 19-16 overtime East semifinal win over Montreal last weekend, engineering a key 97-yard TD march into a brisk wind. Backup Dan LeFevour's two-yard touchdown run in OT clinched the victory.
Impressive 2nd half
Burris was just 10-of-19 passing for 144 yards and two TDs but Ray was the story of the opening half. He was 17-of-20 passing for 279 yards and two TDs in staking the defending Grey Cup champions to their lead.
Austin said the turning points were late in the first half and early in the second when the Ticats captured momentum with their two TD drives.
"I can't state the importance of them," Austin said. "Once we evened it up it was like a 0-0 game, it was just who could outplay who the rest of the game."
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich agreed.
"We weren't able to keep the momentum going," he said. "The turning point in the game felt like the end second quarter when we had a nice lead.
"I felt like we had the game where we wanted it. Then as good teams do, they made a run and closed the gap and then scored again to start the second half."
And it was Hamilton's offence outplaying Toronto's as Burris was 17-of-21 passing for 227 yards in the second half while Ray was just 5-of-12 for 50.
"I thought Ricky was in a great rhythm early in the game," Milanovich said. "As well as we had played offensively in the first half I thought we left points off the board.
"The second half, it's just the momentum of the football game. We have a couple of two and outs, they get moving offensively and next thing you know it's the fourth quarter and we're down."
Overall, Burris finished 27-of-40 passing for 371 yards and three TDs and also added 51 yards rushing on five carries. Hamilton's Andy Fantuz had 11 catches for 114 yards and two TDs.
"Nobody gave us a chance this year due to all factors we had to deal with going to Guelph, having so many things change from last year to this year and with so many young players," Burris said. "Nobody on this team is focused on winning a championship, ring, money, none of that.
"All you hear guys saying is they want to spend one more week together and when you have a group that'll do whatever it takes to make sure we can spend that time and create more memories, that's when you know you have something special."
Ray was 22-of-32 passing overall for 329 yards with two TDs as Toronto's offence had the ball for just 20 minutes nine seconds in the contest. Slotback Andre Durie had three catches for 114 yards.
"They gave me different looks in the second half and put more pressure on us," Ray said. "We had the lead and couldn't get it together.
"It's hard to get this close and not get it done . . . we'll be thinking about this all off-season."
Hamilton will face the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Grey Cup game next Sunday in Regina as the Riders upset Calgary 35-13 in the West Division final.
It will be a homecoming for Burris and Austin. Burris is a former Riders starter while Austin led Saskatchewan to Grey Cup wins as a quarterback ('89) and head coach ('07).
Hamilton heads into the Grey Cup on a roll, having won 11 of its last 15 games. The Ticats also continued Toronto's home woes as the Argos were 4-5 at Rogers Centre during the regular season, the first time in CFL history a team had finished first in a division with a losing home record.
Spencer Watt, with two, and Zach Collaros had the Toronto touchdowns. Swayze Waters had a field goal and three converts.
Congi booted two field goals and three converts.