SURREY, B.C. — Despite putting up some impressive numbers in 2016, Bryan Burnham’s head was often in two places at once.
The B.C. Lions slotback wanted to do everything in his power to help the team succeed, but he also had an eye on the stats sheet, knowing his next move would be to take a shot at playing south of the border.
“Last year it was a bit of, not selfishness, but ‘I have to perform so I can show off for the NFL scouts,’” Burnham said after Lions’ practice this week. ”At the same time you want to win.”
He kept up both ends of the bargain, finishing fourth in the CFL with 79 catches for 1,392 receiving yards to go along with three touchdowns as the Lions went 12-6 and won a playoff game for the first time in five years.
Burnham then packed his bags and went on month-and-a-half-long NFL odyssey that included tryouts for at least 10 clubs — he lost count by the end — looking for a job that never materialized.
“It was tough,” said the 27-year-old, who had a league-high 15 catches over 30 yards last season. ”There was a lot of travelling, and to not have the outcome you were hoping for definitely hurt a little bit.”
But the native Moorestown, N.J. — a suburb of Philadelphia where his father ended his pro career on the defensive line with the Eagles — said taking his chance was worth the heartache.
“That’s what you work for your whole life,” said Burnham. ”That was the dream, to play in the NFL. My dad played so I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“But I’m lucky and honoured to play in this league.”
Burnham has picked up right where he left off among B.C.’s talented receiving corps after signing two-year contract in February. The University of Tulsa product has 25 catches for 372 yards in 2017, including a one-handed TD grab two weeks ago against Hamilton.
“That’s probably the best individual catch I’ve ever pulled the trigger on,” said Lions quarterback Travis Lulay. ”It was just awesome.”
As an example of how deep the Lions (4-1) are at the moment, Burnham had only nine yards that night before racking up 149 on six catches in Friday’s wild 45-42 home victory over Winnipeg for B.C.’s fourth straight win.
“He’s learned how to play at a fast clip, how to work defenders,” said Lions head coach and general manager Wally Buono. “He continually amazes you with some of the catches.”
Burnham doesn’t even lead the Lions in receiving, trailing Nick Moore by four yards after he registered an eye-popping 220 against Hamilton.
Emmanuel Arceneaux, third in the CFL last year, and Marco Iannuzzi have 241 and 239 yards, respectively, while free-agent speedster Chris Williams is close to returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“We’re fortunate in that all those guys are veteran guys that truly care more about winning than individual stats,” said Lulay. ”The longer you’re here, the more invested you are in the entire club.”
Lulay, who has been thrust back into the starting role after Jonathon Jennings hurt his shoulder on B.C.’s first play from scrimmage against Hamilton, remembers Burnham’s arrival back in 2014.
The veteran QB was rehabbing a troublesome throwing shoulder and would work out after formal team sessions with the club’s practice squad.
“What stood out was the same thing that stands out now — Bryan was really good at making contested catches,” said Lulay, who has thrown for more than 400 yards the last two weeks. ”He’s got a big catch radius. You can throw it all around him.”
Set to start a second straight game in Friday’s battle for first in the West Division against Edmonton (4-0), which beat B.C. at home in Week 1, Lulay also recalled another story from Burnham’s first season.
Lulay had re-injured his shoulder and was back on the sidelines by that September, but made a comment on his weekly radio call-in show that fans should watch for a rookie receiver making his first start.
Burnham would finish with five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
“He made me look good,” Lulay said with a smile
But Burnham would get hurt the following game and miss the rest of the year before one-and-done head coach Jeff Tedford instituted an archaic offence in 2015 that included a tight end, forcing Burnham to the sidelines.
“Looking back now, it just seems crazy,” said Lulay. ”Cam Morrah, a guy who’s done playing football, and A.C. Leonard, who’s now a defensive end for Saskatchewan, were playing in front of Bryan Burnham.
“He was here, but we hadn’t really discovered the full Bryan Burnham yet.”
The Lions and the rest of the CFL certainly have now.