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Keith Burnell never achieved his goals at Virginia Tech, but he surely got an education.
The Roanoke Times | File 2001
Virginia Tech running back Keith Burnell eyes the goal line on a touchdown run during the 2001 season.
The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot
Former Virginia Tech football player Keith Burnell is now a general contractor in the Tidewater area. He is currently remodeling this house in Virginia Beach.
Friday, July 5, 2013
When he was a wide-eyed 10-year-old, Mike Wyche remembers meeting Keith Burnell, then a running back trying to make it with the Baltimore Ravens.
Wyche, who would go on to star at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake and sign to play at Southern Cal this fall, ran into Burnell after a camp. Out of the blue, Burnell, who wore size 10 shoes like Wyche, gave him a brand-new pair out of his trunk, one of the first the youngster had ever gotten.
The moment became etched in his memory. Wyche, who had a troubled upbringing, got mixed up in drugs and guns as years progressed and needed a role model.
After a chance meeting years later with Burnell, who by then had started a contracting business and mentored kids on the side, the two formed a close bond — teacher and student, trainer and athlete, big brother and little brother.
Wyche has a good idea where he’d be without Burnell.
“I’d probably be dead or in jail,” he said. “Because I was lost, man.”
He’s not the only youngster Burnell has mentored over the years. In fact, it’s probably in the hundreds. Some are names you’ve heard of, but not all.
The 34-year-old former Virginia Tech running back and native of Chesapeake, dubbed “Sweet Feet” in his playing days, is determined to give back to the community that once helped him.
Burnell is a contractor by day at his own business, Floor to Ceiling Remodeling, in Chesapeake. But that job, he says, is really just a means to an end. His real passion is working with kids.
That might be doing sprints early in the morning, or giving tips about football or life in general.
“I can help any kid get faster, stronger,” Burnell said. “But I try to dig into their character, learn more about their attitude and what they want to be in life after football. That’s my biggest thing. I know I can help off the field. And in turn it will help what they do on the field.”
Burnell, whose dad wasn’t in his life when he was growing up, credits his current success to a long list of mentors, including several Chesapeake-area coaches, tutors and teachers.
He, too, met a former athlete eager to pass his knowledge on to a younger generation. When he got to Virginia Tech, Burnell’s uncle introduced him to James Church, a Norfolk native who was an all-conference receiver at Richmond in the mid-’80s and the general manager at a Lincoln dealership in his post-football life.
“I wanted him to understand that football is sort of a springboard for anything in life,” Church said. “It’s a great thing and it’s an awesome opportunity for a lot of youth, but the message is: Make sure you’re preparing for what you’re going to do 40 years after football.”
Football generally came easy for Burnell, a top recruit out of Western Branch High School who played his senior season in 1997. Burnell takes credit for helping talk Michael Vick out of going to Syracuse after the two took a recruiting trip there.
“I told Mike, ‘Do you know how far away that is from home?’ ” Burnell said. “He said the coach said about six, seven hours. I said, ‘Man, it’s 14. They’re lying!’ I said, ‘Look how high the snow is outside.’ When we got off the plane, they told us, ‘Naw, it doesn’t snow here that often.’ The snow was up to our waist.”
Both ended up signing at Tech. Vick thrived while Burnell tried to find his footing at a time when Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones already were part of the Hokies’ backfield.
Burnell could fly, though. Church helped him harness that speed, waking up for 7 a.m. offseason workouts to run hills attached to a parachute or to run on the beach.
Church remembers getting a call on timing day in 2002, when Burnell was going to take a shot at the school record in the 40. Burnell had tweaked something in his knee and didn’t know if he could run.
“I said, if you go through life and you let one hiccup get in your way … you’re going to be on the short end of a lot of things,” Church said. “I’m not going to sit here and let you talk yourself out of your goal.”
Burnell clocked a 4.21-second hand-timed 40 — four one-hundredths of a second faster than Vick’s mark in 2000 and .02 faster than safety Damien Russell’s school record set in 1990.
Burnell’s on-field exploits didn’t go as well. He ran for 707 yards and nine touchdowns in 2001, filling in ably when Suggs tore his ACL. By the end of the year, though, Jones was the clear-cut No. 1 back. And Suggs was set to return in 2002.
In the spring, Tech moved Burnell to the defensive backfield, then tried him at wide receiver. He still feels hurt by that today.
“If I could have done it all over again, I would not have gone to Virginia Tech,” said Burnell, who nonetheless recommends the school to players he mentors. “Now, I’m happy with the relationships I made there, because I’ve met some great people, some good friends that I’m going to have for life. … But at the end of the day, those coaches even know, they weren’t fair with me. …
“I can’t say it’s ever behind me, because I always think about it. But I don’t hate them for it.”
Burnell transferred to Delaware. Undrafted, he bounced around on NFL practice squads with the Jets and Raiders, but he never got the call to the regular roster.
“I’d say numerous times, I’m supposed to come in as the third-string running back and Curtis Martin, who was having knee problems, would say, ‘Ahh, I’m going to play this week,’ because he was trying to win the rushing title,” Burnell said. “Even though he sat out the whole week of practice.
“It [ticks] you off. Especially when your [weekly] paycheck could go from $5,500 to $16,000.”
He was among the final cuts in 2005 with the Ravens, then spent that year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League. He didn’t like it up there, and he retired after the birth of the first of his three children.
His first job in the real word? Working for Church as a car dealer.
It wasn’t Burnell’s thing. After a few months, he put his property management degree to work and became a contractor — his first job was installing hardwood floors in Church’s house. His business took off from there.
But he never strayed far from the football field, continuing to run youth camps, keeping his promise to do the same for the next generation.
Burnell would like to make it a full-time endeavor. He wants to open his own training facility in Chesapeake.
He’s got drawings for it and even has a name in mind: Life After Sports Development Center.
“There was a team of people who helped mentor me, guide me along the way to be successful,” Burnell said. “All I do is take the stuff I took from them and pass it along.”
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