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Ken Burnette – That Other Peach Bowl Linebacker

Pirate Time Machine No. 2

With Ron Cherubini

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 world.

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 football.

“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 is today.

“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 good…connected.

“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 camaraderie.”

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 being remembered.

“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.”

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Ken Burnette





Years at ECU:


Position/Jersey No.

Linebacker/ No. 54


Spruce Pine, NC

Currently Resides:

Huntersville, NC


Sprint - Senior Account Executive

ECU Degree(s)
  • BS Business Administration

  • MBA

Marital Status:


Significant Other:



None, yet


“I would personally like to say ‘Thanks’ to the Pirate Club members. I don’t know if they understand how much of a difference they make in a person’s life. They aren’t thanked enough for what they give and what they do in providing opportunities for many kids who otherwise would have no chance.”

Ken and Kimberly Burnette
Ken and Kimberly Burnette


1. Who is your favorite current Pirate and Why?

“I’d say Greg Lefever, although he is better than I was. He plays a lot like I did.”

2. What do you miss most about ECU?

“I miss Spring in Greenville.”

3. Where is your favorite spot on the ECU campus?

“In school, my favorite spot was in front of the student store between classes.”

4. What was your dorm room and favorite dorm story?

“215-D Scott Hall for five years. My suite had Todd Drugac, Junior Robinson, Anthony Brenner, Brian Haywood, Steven Braddy. Todd kind of ran the suite until he graduated and then my room was in charge. One time, Tim Walters filled up his suite-mates room with water – about a foot-and-a-half deep – while they were asleep. Then, he tied a rope to there bookshelf, ran it out the window and tied it to the bumper of his car. When he pulled the bookcases over, it woke them up and when they got out of bed…water. I hope I don’t get anyone arrested with that story.”

5. Greatest Moment as a Pirate football player?

“I would say, as an individual, it was when we beat South Carolina at home my senior year. We physically dominated them from start to finish and that was an awesome feeling. We really wore them out between the lines..”

6. Most disliked opponent?

“Virginia Tech. Because they played me dirty for some reason. I still got a lump on my throat where I was grabbed in a game by Eugene Chung.”

7. Athletic Influences?

“Probably my mom (Carolyn) and my(older) brother (Cliff). Mom played basketball in college so she was always active playing basketball, football, whatever with us. Cliff got to start sports before me so I would sit there salivating, waiting for my turn.”

8. Favorite coach?

“Dave Huxtable (ILB coach). We really got to know each other personally in film and at other times. He took me under his wing and shared his life with me. I still talk to him.”

9. Best Locker Room Story

“A defensive lineman, no names here, had strained himself to the point where he, how should I say this, messed himself and thought it would be funny chasing people around with his soiled pants…he tried to chase me around. I believe I ran a 4.5 that day.”

10. Best Emerald City hangout?

“My favorite was the Sports Pad because of the music and shooting pool.”


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02/23/2007 02:07:29 PM

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