By Mark Eckel, Player Engagement Insider
Joe Burns, the former Buffalo Bills running back, watched the NFL Draft a little differently this year. Burns watched it with Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson, who was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth round. Lawson wasn’t the only player in this Draft close to Burns, however.
Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson, taken in the first round by the Houston Texans; Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis, taken by the Detroit Lions in the first round; Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, taken by the Miami Dolphins in the second round; Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs (Pittsburgh Steelers, fourth round) and running back Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints, second round) are all special to Burns.
All of those players are graduates of Burns’ Rising Seniors,’ a program he started in 2010 to help Georgia high school students get into college.
“It does feel good,’’ Burns, who played for the Bills from 2002 - 2005, said. “When I started the program I just wanted to get guys to college, never thought of the back end of it. Now, seeing all these guys getting drafted it shows how far it’s come.’’
Burns got the idea for Rising Seniors shortly after his NFL career ended. His wife, Tiffany, was in the business school at Harvard and he went to see Kevin Johnson, the former NBA player and mayor of Sacramento, speak.
“It was so inspiring,’’ Burns said. “I left there wanting to do something more than what I was doing.’’
Johnson spoke that day about Operation Hope and how it helped the youth in Sacramento. That was all Burns needed to hear.
“I wanted to take that back to Georgia and help as many young men as I could go to college,’’ Burns said. “Going to college changed my life. I grew up in a single-wide trailer in South Georgia and never dreamed I would be where I am today. But because I had the opportunity to go to college it changed me, changed my life.’’
Burns was a high school football star at Thomas County Central in south Georgia. In his final two seasons, he gained 4,574 yards and scored 56 touchdowns. His senior year he was named the Georgia High School Player of the Year. He parlayed that into a scholarship at Georgia Tech where he finished as the school’s fourth all-time leading rusher.
Now, he’s seeing the same success for his Rising Seniors.
“It took a lot of time and effort. I mean a lot of people before me have had good ideas, but it does take that time and effort,’’ Burns said.
The first thing he did was get the support of the Georgia high schools, which allowed him to start the first All-Star football game for underclassmen. It went further than that, however.
With the help of sponsors (the primary one is fast food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A), Rising Seniors began in 2010.
“If I had just said, ‘I want kids to come to my leadership program,’ they’re not going to come,’’ Burns said. “I needed the bait to get them there.’’
That bait was the All-Star Game. But Rising Seniors is much more than a game. It’s a five-day event (December 26-30) where the students are on the field, but are also in the classroom.
Burns said he modeled it after the NFL’s rookie symposium. The student-athletes, 90 of them every year, are put up in the finest hotels in Atlanta, and learn from top coaches and business people in the area. And it doesn’t cost them a dime.
“If I had to pay, I couldn’t have gone,’’ Burns said. “I didn’t want guys like me not to be able to go.’’
Tiffany leads the educational component of the week, while Ahmad Tinker, a coach and owner of FRE Sports & Recruiting Expos, runs the actual on-field coaching.
Since the program began over 600 kids have earned college scholarships.
“My wife and I used to talk when I was playing,’’ Burns said. “If someone called and asked me for $500, I’d probably give it to them. She would say you’re not helping them. You need to help them so they don’t need to ask you for money. That’s what I hope we’re doing with a lot of these kids in helping them get to college.’’
Three Rising Seniors have already made it to the NFL, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is with the New Orleans Saints, linebacker Jordan Jenkins is with the New York Jets, and running back Mike Davis is with the San Francisco 49ers.
This draft just added several more.
Like Lawson, who according to Burns was going unnoticed until Rising Seniors’, has scholarship offers from several of the top colleges in the country.
“It’s stories like his that make it worth it,’’ Burns said.