Re­ceiver po­tent weapon for B.C. Lions

Ottawa Sun - - SPORTS - ED WILLES ed.willes@post­ @willeson­sports

REGINA — Geroy Si­mon, who could write a doc­toral the­sis on the sub­ject, says the story is sim­i­lar for just about ev­ery re­ceiver who comes to the CFL.

In high school, they were the best player on their team, and in col­lege, they were stars. The next log­i­cal step was the NFL and the mil­lions it promised, but they soon dis­cov­ered there were a dozen guys on each team with sim­i­lar cre­den­tials and sim­i­lar be­lief in their abil­i­ties.

They get cut by one team. They get picked up by an­other team and they’re cut again. Si­mon went through this process on eight dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions be­fore he landed in Canada where he saw the same guys he’d seen in the NFL, though now more con­trite; now not as sure of them­selves.

Si­mon, the CFL’s all­time lead­ing re­ceiver, now works in the Lions’ front of­fice. He’s asked why some of those play­ers dis­ap­pear and oth­ers are able to cre­ate a sec­ond act in Canada.

“The team has to fig­ure them out, but, more im­por­tantly, they have to fig­ure out where they fit in the team,” Si­mon says. “It’s a dif­fer­ent game up here and it usu­ally takes a cou­ple of years but they have to rein­vent them­selves.”

Si­mon is asked if that’s what’s hap­pened to Bryan Burn­ham. “Ab­so­lutely,” he says. There are more than a few par­al­lels to the ca­reer arcs of Si­mon and Burn­ham, the Lions’ break­out star at re­ceiver. To be sure they are dif­fer­ent play­ers and dif­fer­ent men but in terms of their jour­ney, in terms of their dogged pur­suit of great­ness and un­com­pro­mis­ing work ethic, they share so much.

Burn­ham, as it hap­pens, is nurs­ing a mi­nor foot in­jury sus­tained in prac­tice this week which makes him a game-time de­ci­sion for Sun­day evening’s en­counter with the Roughrid­ers at Mo­saic Sta­dium. But he’s still on pace for an 82-catch, 1,400-yard cam­paign af­ter last year’s 79-catch, 1,392-yard sea­son, and that puts him in the con­ver­sa­tion of the CFL’s best re­ceivers, a con­ver­sa­tion with which Si­mon is also fa­mil­iar.

“Some­times the player has great­ness in him, but it’s never been de­vel­oped or ex­posed,” says Lions coach Wally Buono, who’s had a few Hall of Famers in his CFL ca­reer.

“It’s a fine thing, but when you get your op­por­tu­nity, you have to make the most of it, and that’s what Bryan has done.”

Even if he took some time get­ting there.

When he first ar­rived in Van­cou­ver, the 27-year-old Burn­ham didn’t quite have Si­mon’s his­tory with the NFL, but like Si­mon, he was painfully aware he was run­ning out of op­tions. Af­ter a big ju­nior year at Tulsa, the New Jer­sey na­tive missed vir­tu­ally all his se­nior year with a torn ACL, which didn’t ex­actly en­hance his draft sta­tus. In­stead, he signed with the Lions and spent most of 2014 on the prac­tice ros­ter be­fore he played one game, then man­aged to lac­er­ate his spleen.

Here are his stats from his rookie year: two games, six catches, 113 yards.

“That whole process hum­bles you,” Burn­ham says of those early tri­als.

“Some peo­ple can’t han­dle that. They fold up. To me, it was a mo­ti­va­tion. It made me want to be great in this league.”

Which is an ex­cel­lent sound bite, but the fol­low­ing year wasn’t go­ing much bet­ter for Burn­ham when in­juries forced one-and­done head coach Jeff Ted­ford to in­sert Jonathon Jen­nings as the start­ing quar­ter­back late in the sea­son. Jen­nings and Burn­ham found chem­istry al­most im­me­di­ately, but the larger story with the re­ceiver con­cerned his growth through his re­lent­less at­ten­tion to de­tail.

“Your ath­leti­cism is only go­ing to take you so far,” says Lions re­ceivers coach Mar­cel Belle­feuille, now in his sec­ond year with Burn­ham.

“Now he’s fo­cused on the finer de­tails of align­ments, splits, how to run cer­tain routes, how to gain B.C. Lions re­ceiver Bryan Burn­ham is on pace for an 82-catch, 1,400-yard sea­son, among the league’s elite. The Lions take on the Roughrid­ers in Saskatchewan to­day at 8 p.m. po­si­tion and use his eyes on the tough catches. Be­ing a bet­ter stu­dent has taken him to the next level.”

Those tough catches have also be­come Burn­ham’s call­ing card, his “dif­fer­entskill,” as Belle­feuille puts it.

“It’s some­thing I ab­so­lutely I work at,” Burn­ham says. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but we don’t see those as 50-50 balls. When the DB has his back to the ball, that’s an 80-20 ball. That’s my ball.”

Burn­ham al­lows that, like most young re­ceivers, he wasn’t par­tic­u­larly dili­gent about the study­ing the game in his early years. But, as with Si­mon, he looked around and quickly de­ter­mined there were a lot of great ath­letes in the pros. He’d have to look else­where to find his edge.

“It was watch­ing film, do­ing the work af­ter prac­tice, work­ing on the de­tails,” Burn­ham says. “That’s when I started to sep­a­rate my­self from the pack.

“At this point, you’re only get­ting older and you’re not go­ing to get more ath­letic. That leaves those other ar­eas and that’s where you have to im­prove.”

He also comes by that sen­si­bil­ity hon­estly. Burn­ham’s fa­ther, Lem, played three sea­sons as a de­fen­sive end with the Philadel­phia Ea­gles in the 70s but made a larger im­pact on the game in re­tire­ment. A mil­i­tary man, Burn­ham se­nior earned a PhD in psy­chol­ogy at Tem­ple and be­came the team psy­chol­o­gist for the Ea­gles, 76ers and Bal­ti­more Ori­oles. He then worked for the NFL for a decade and helped write the league’s first rookie sym­po­sium.

Dude’s also writ­ten a cou­ple of books. Ap­par­ently he didn’t en­cour­age in­do­lence in his son.

“A lot of (his work ethic) comes from my dad,” says Burn­ham. “He in­stilled that in me at a young age — you have to work for ev­ery­thing, noth­ing is given to you. At the time I hated it but, look­ing back, it’s made me who I am.”

And what he will con­tinue to be.


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