Lions’ ‘Returnin’ Burnham brings ‘wind’ of change to receiving corps

Broken ribs and a twice-collapsed lung couldn’t break Bryan Burnham’s spirit. But being away from his B.C. Lions teammates nearly did

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Bryan Burnham had been hit before. Harder, even, than the boom laid down on him on June 25 via an air-to-air missile in a Toronto Argonauts jersey named Shaq Richardson.

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And, like any receiver brave enough to venture over the middle of the field to make a catch, Burnham has had the wind knocked out of him before.

Only this time, the wind wasn’t coming back.

“I just remember feeling that pain. And it knocked the wind out of me,” said the B.C. Lions’ wideout. “Initially, all I was thinking was ‘I can’t breathe,’ trying to get that wind back, trying to get in a position where I could breathe.

“Eventually the breath came back to me. I got up and ran off the field, thinking it’s gonna get better and better. It didn’t get better. Just really shallow breaths. I couldn’t take a deep breath. I could feel that something was wrong. And then the doctors said it would be wise to go to the hospital and get it checked out.

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“It’s a great thing that we have doctors on the sideline.”


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Burnham went to the locker room at halftime. At 9 p.m. on that Saturday night, he checked into Vancouver General Hospital. By 3 a.m., he had a tube inserted through his fractured ribs into his chest cavity to allow the air to release and his collapsed lung to reinflate.

The tube was removed, then two days later his lung collapsed again.

All told, the 32-year-old was in hospital for a week. He dutifully told his teammates to stay away, to focus on their upcoming game against Ottawa, but they told him, respectively, to get bent. Receivers Daniel Petermann and Jacob Scarfone popped in unannounced, along with Isaiah Guzylak-Messam and receivers coach Jason Tucker. On the morning of their game against the RedBlacks, head coach Rick Campbell called from Ottawa, put Burnham on speaker to talk to the kids, and let him pick the coin toss.

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“I thought that was really awesome,” said Burnham. “Man, it just made me feel like I was still a part of it.”

For four games, he wasn’t. While his teammates were running drills in practice, he was running on the sidelines. When they held meetings, he wasn’t part of them. And this was uncharted territory; he’d only ever missed three games since the start of the 2016 season, and had played 98 of a possible 113 games since coming off the practice roster in 2014 with seven games left that year.

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“That was the hardest part. The pain, the discomfort, that part is honestly kind of easy,” he said. “It was the not being able to interact with the guys, not being able to be there with the guys. That was hard.

“Not that I wasn’t a part of it … It’s just different than being in the huddle and going out there and competing, being tired together, struggling together, picking each other up … all that stuff. I missed it.”

But on Tuesday, Burnham was back at practice and looking like his old self. He has been medically cleared, and just has to make it through one final practice Thursday, then he’ll be on the game-day roster.

B.C. Lions receiver Bryan Burnham (left), joking with fellow pass catcher Keon Hatcher during training camp in Kamloops in May, is popular with his teammates in large part due to his positive attitude.
B.C. Lions receiver Bryan Burnham (left), joking with fellow pass catcher Keon Hatcher during training camp in Kamloops in May, is popular with his teammates in large part due to his positive attitude. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /The Canadian Press files

After he made his first catch in the scrimmage on Tuesday, he ran over and gave quarterback Nathan Rourke a hug, and they shared a laugh.

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“He’s got such a positive attitude. He shows up. He’s always laughing. He’s making everyone else laugh,” said Rourke. “He works hard, but he doesn’t take things too seriously. He enjoys the game for what it is. When there’s a grind of the season, he makes things fun. He’s got that contagious energy.”

Burnham makes his teammates smile like he makes opposing DBs sweat. Burnham is fifth all-time on the team’s career receiving list with 6,682 career receiving yards and 39 touchdowns off 441 receptions. He has 66 yards and a touchdown in his 1.5 games this year.

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Campbell likes to say victories come down to the building blocks of players winning their one-on-one matchups; few are better at it than Burnham. Even when he’s covered, he’s not, with an ability to make the spectacular catch, create separation with savvy route running or innately find a soft spot in the zone.

“Defensively, when you’re lining up against Bryan Burnham, you have to know where he is. You have to understand that he’s gonna get the ball. And I think that just the gravity of that is good for us,” said Rourke.

Burnham comes into Saturday night’s game against the Edmonton Elks just 75 yards away from passing the great “Swervin’ Mervyn” Fernandez for fourth all-time. Breaking the record would be sweet. But for Burnham, just getting back on the field is enough.

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“I’m definitely gonna have to rein in the emotions a little bit. I’m gonna be excited and grateful just to be back out there,” he said. “I knew it was only gonna be a few weeks, but when you’re in it, when you’re first getting the news of what the injury is, my mind automatically goes, ‘Man — am I going to play again?’ I just want to play football. I know I’m going to be excited. I’m going to have to calm myself down a little bit.”

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