VANCOUVER — When it finally became clear that Bryan Burnham would, in fact, return to the B.C. Lions, the star receiver made an important video call.
He knew Mike Reilly, the team's marquee quarterback, was eagerly awaiting news.
"I answered the phone and I had a sad look on my face and was just telling him how much I enjoyed playing with him and all this and that," Burnham said Monday.
"I had to pull his strings a little bit. He got a little nervous and thought I was saying goodbye. But I was excited to tell him I was coming back.”
The duo built a special friendship playing together for the Lions in 2019, with Burnham hauling in 100 receptions for 1,492 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“That’s my training camp roommate, my road roommate. That’s my guy," he said of Reilly. "So the relationship we’ve built on the field and off the field is something I really wanted to continue. I’m happy that we can do that.”
Though the Lions announced Monday that Burnham had signed a one-year contract extension, there was a tense week when it seemed as if the call between the friends wouldn't be a joke.
The 30-year-old from Moorestown, N.J., thought a move was imminent. He even spoke with other CFL teams, including the Winnipeg Blue bombers."
“I thought my days in B.C. were done and I was going to be moving on," he said. "Luckily there were able to make something happen to get this done.”
Burnham was expected to be highly coveted on the CFL's free agency market, which opens next week.
Heading into the 2021 campaign, he sits 10th on the Lions' all-time list with 5,651 receiving yards and eighth overall with 33 touchdown receptions.
In 2019, he became just the second player in Lions' history to record four consecutive 1,000-plus yard seasons.
A product of the University of Tulsa, Burnham signed with B.C. as a free agent ahead of training camp in 2014, and spent the first 11 weeks of his rookie season on the practice roster. He made his CFL debut against Toronto on Sept. 19, 2014, catching his first touchdown pass from Kevin Glenn.
Asked if he took a hometown discount to stay in B.C., Burnham was blunt.
"Yup," he said.
“There was kind of a number that would take for me to stay in B.C. and a number it would take for me to leave. And B.C. got to the number and nobody got to the number it would take for me to leave.”
Burnham said he understands that the CFL is in a tenuous situation at the moment, having cancelled last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He knows teams have to cut money and that contract negotiations are about business, not personal relationships.
Ultimately, the receiver said he made it known that staying was his priority.
“I was willing to fight for those guys in the locker room to the end," he said. "It’s not something that I was happy about, that I was going to be moving on. I wanted to do whatever I could to make it back in B.C. And luckily there was that mutual feeling.”
Burnham last played a CFL game on Nov. 2, 2019 and, while the time away from football has been good for him physically, he's eagerly anticipating the start of a new season.
Recently, he started throwing with Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Dane Evans in Tulsa, Okla., where they both live in the off-season.
“It’s nice to have a big-time quarterback like that who can throw you the ball in the off-season," Burnham said. "We’re both looking forward to making each other better. I hope I don’t help him too much though because we’ll have to beat them this year in the Grey Cup.”
Burnham's new deal wasn't the only piece of business for the Lions on Monday. The club also brought back free agent Bo Lokombo and inked linebacker Isaiah Guzylak-Messam to a contract extension.
Lokombo returns to B.C. for his third stint with the Lions. The six-foot-three, 229-pound linebacker recorded 51 defensive tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 15 games with the Montreal Alouettes in 2019.
A third-round selection of the Lions in the 2013 CFL Draft, Lokombo played 43 games with B.C. from 2014-16 and earned a West Division all-star nod in his second season.
He was then released to pursue NFL opportunities before returning to the Lions in 2018 and recording a career-best 71 defensive tackles and two interceptions.
Lokombo signed a one-year contract with Montreal in 2019, then was traded to Toronto for the 2020 season that was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toronto released Lokombo on Sunday.
Born in the Congo and raised in Montreal and Abbotsford, B.C., Lokombo was a standout at the University of Oregon and appeared in the 2011 BCS Championship Game against Cam Newton and Auburn.
The six-foot-one, 205-pound Guzylak-Messam returns for a third season with the Lions after working his way into the starting defence early in the 2019 campaign. The Hamilton native registered 37 defensive tackles and a sack that year, while also chipping in with 14 special teams tackles.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press