Ken Burnette – That Other Peach Bowl Linebacker
Pirate Time Machine No. 2
During the famed Peach Bowl year, Pirate fans were well
aware of a linebacker from Blacksburg, Va., named Robert Jones. He was
everybody’s All-American, and deservedly so. But there was another linebacker
that year, a good one in his own right. That “other linebacker," as many
around campus affectionately called him from 1987-91, was also a good one,
albeit a bit more demure.
Ken Burnette – a.k.a., No. 54 in your Peach Bowl
program – quietly goes about his business these days as a sales executive
for Sprint in Charlotte. Occasionally, he will bump into someone, get to
talking about football, and eventually reveal his connection to ECU football
history. But for the most part, his memories of the struggle
he faced when he walked into the Pirate program as a 6-1, 187-pound safety
in 1987, remain tucked away, serving as a quiet reminder that it’s not
getting to the top as much as how you get there that matters.
Ken Burnette in action during his days as an
East Carolina LB.
For Burnette, his years at ECU, above all, taught him a
lesson in the value of perseverance and his years since, have taught him
that balance and perspective lead to a much less disappointing life.
“Getting to the Peach Bowl, winning the way we did,” Burnette said, “...Very few things I’ve experienced in life – meeting and
marrying my wife, the thought of children someday – very few things will
rival that feeling of accomplishment.”
That feeling for Burnette was like being on top of the
As a high school player from Spruce Pine, NC, the
hard-hitting defensive back expected that someday he would be on top of the
football world. He dreamed it, ate it, slept it, thought about it all of the
time. There was a fated plan for him. Offers would pour in his junior year.
But that was not what happened. In fact, the only
interest Burnette got was from smaller schools in lower divisions of college
“It felt like a slap in the face,” he said. “I felt
like I had the ability.”
His high school coach Leland Riddle also believed in
his player and used a connection within the Pirate coaching ranks,
then-defensive backs coach Don Powers, to pitch a case for Burnette.
Burnette was convincing and a plan was formed. He would
come to ECU as a preferred walk-on, meaning that he – along with 11 others –
were invited to attend camp at their own expense. That was it, and maybe
Burnette could make it as a defensive back.
“(Not being offered a scholarship) didn’t matter,”
Burnett said. “I knew they played top level competition. Their record didn’t
even come into play in my decision. On the ride back home, I found a peace
about ECU and decided that’s where I needed to be.”
Burnette’s trek from 187-pound safety to the Peach Bowl
basher in the middle went something like this: First, he was red- shirted,
where he took his turns on the scout team. Midway through the season, the
coaches became concerned about a shortage of healthy players at the
linebacker position and moved Burnette there for the remainder of the
year. By that time, Burnette had beefed up to just over 200 pounds.
“Prior to summer break, coach (Art) Baker met with me
and asked me what my expectations were and I told him, ‘I expect to make the
travel team,'" explained Burnette. "I asked him how I could get there. He told me that if I was on
the traveling team for opening week, I would get a scholarship.
“So, I came into camp determined to make that a
reality. Coach Baker was true to his word, like he always was and in the
fall of 1998, I was given a scholarship.
“It’s very hard to come up with an adjective to
describe my feelings when I got the scholarship. Coming up for me, in 7-8th
grade it was an assumption that I would have multiple scholarship offers.
And when it didn’t happen, I was blown away. So when I got that scholarship
it meant everything to me…it was a really big deal. It meant that I as good
enough to play on that level.”
From there, Burnette worked his way into a starting
inside linebacker spot during his sophomore season, only to see his starting
position vanish with one wrong twist of the knee.
“I had torn my Medial Collateral, and I had no idea
how bad it would be or what it meant. It was the first injury I’d had. I was
very disappointed. I come from a small town and my family and friends were
really excited about me playing and then, it was over.”
After intense rehabilitation, Burnette returned to the
team, only now he was being shifted to outside linebacker, out of his normal
position and comfort level.”
“I wasn’t real happy about it, but I also wanted to get
on the field,” he said. “As long as I could play, I didn’t care.”
Heading into his junior season, ECU had switched
Defensive Coordinators and Mike Cassidy brought into the program a new
defensive scheme. The base was more of a 50 defense with the inside
linebackers making the plays. Burnette was moved inside next to Jones where
he would finish out his career.
“When I had the opportunity to move back inside, I was
excited,” he said. “I was home again.”
The tandem of Jones and Burnette were as effective a
duo of linebackers as any in the country during the 1991 season.
“Robert got a lot attention from the press which was
fine to me,” Burnette said. “I was honored to be beside him. I complimented
Robert. Robert deserved the attention. He was bigger, faster, and stronger.
I don’t know if he hit harder…but I’ll give him the others.
“The reason I was able to play at that level was
because I could pick up adjustments quickly and get people in the right
place at the right time.”
The tandem of Jones and Burnette, helped to write the
fairy tale story that was the 1991 season for ECU fans.
Above all of the excitement of that game in Georgia –
where Burnette broke his arm – perhaps it was the lessons learned in the
hotel after the game that have helped mold Ken Burnette into the man that he
“I went back to the hotel with my family and we kind of
laid back for the rest of the night," he said. “I remember thinking about how
I had played football every fall since sixth grade. Now it is over. There
will be no more football. It was shocking thought to me.
“Sometimes, wrongly, football was the biggest thing in
my life. I had to realize that it is just a game. Once I got away from it,
assessed my priorities, lined some things up and made the tough adjustment,
I think that I finally figured out where (football) fits in life."
Today, Burnette is a family man, well grounded in his
faith and living with a clearer picture of what is most important.
“Ultimately, we want to have children and raise those
children in the way we want them to be raised,” he explained. “Money will never
be the most important thing in my life. While you need it to get by and you
work hard at your job, money can’t drive all of your decisions. We are
comfortable where we are. I always want a challenge, so we’ll see where the
future takes us.”
Still, Burnette will always cherish those things that
ECU football afforded him.
“Being at ECU, the way things transpired, I guess,
ended up being a fairy tale, better than I could have ever planned. My
education, an opportunity to get an advanced career,” he said. “I had never
even been on an airplane before (ECU). The way you get treated is great,
people kind of look at you different when you are an athlete. It is as
special feeling, that I’m grateful I got to experience.”
However, according to Burnette, the two things he
misses the most are the friendships
and the kinship developed through struggling together as a team.
“I remember that I used to always say this thing in the
huddle to the guys. I would say, ‘Nothing’s hurt now, let’s keep playing.’ I
remember a couple years after I graduated, I was talking to Jerry Dillon
(then a senior) and he told me that he borrowed that phrase. It made me feel
“The relationship piece is what you miss as a player.
You miss the game because it’s a great game, but you really miss the
Burnette gets a little of that back, coaching outside
linebackers at Hopewell High School.
“Again, what I’m after there, is the relationships,” he
said “That’s what I’m looking to feel again.”
And, every once in a while, he gets a thrill out of
“My wife (Kimberly) has an ECU sticker on the back of
her vehicle and she was pulling into the house one day and there was the guy
who hollered ‘We believe’ and he asked her if she went to ECU. She didn’t go
to ECU, but as they talked, this man asked about the sticker and she told
him that I had played and they talked. He was really excited about that and
knew who I was.”
Even if he was that “other linebacker.”