Willie Burden brightened my life.
The former Enloe High, N.C. State and Canadian Football League football star could brighten any room with a brilliant smile, but it wasn’t his smile that I will remember most.
Burden died last week in Atlanta after a near-year-long fruitless wait for a heart transplant.
His physical heart failed him, but his spiritual heart never did.
Most everyone who knew him talks about heart – not only his competitive desire, but also his love for people.
I once called Lou Holtz, who was coaching Burden at N.C. State at the time, to talk about all the things Burden was doing in the community. Holtz was taken by surprise.
He didn’t know his star player was helping so many people in the community. Burden never talked much about the good things he did.
He wanted to help young people and eventually was selected to the Boys and Girls Club Hall of Fame. His message to youth was simple: get your education and do the right thing.
Those tenets were drummed into him by his mother, a woman who envisioned better things for her children.
The family was living near Rocky Mount as sharecroppers when Burden was young. The supervisor told Willie’s mom that her son needed to miss school to work in the fields. When she learned that the farmer’s children would go to school that day, she told the supervisor that her son needed to be in school that day, too.
Within 24 hours, the Burdens had packed up and moved to Raleigh to begin a new life.
He was a football and basketball star at Enloe and was among the first black scholarship football players at N.C. State.
Burden was one of the mainstays in Holtz’s makeover of the N.C. State football program, which had emphasized defense and played conservatively on offense. Holtz promised to move the ball, hopefully forward, and Burden was a key component for three years.
Burden was a linebacker as a freshman before Holtz’s arrival, but was a running back starter for the next three years. He was the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year in 1973.
He played for the Calgary Stampeders, setting Canadian Football League rushing records. Burden was the CFL MVP in 1975 and he was later inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame.
He studied sports administration after his playing career and became the athletic director at North Carolina A&T. Before his illness, he was an associate professor at Georgia Southern.
We had talked by telephone not too long ago and it was a conversation filled with laughs and remembrances. We laughed again at his old line – “I’m a doctor, but if you’re sick I can’t help you.”
We talked about how glad we were to have attended integrated, rather than segregated, schools. We talked about the benefits of sports and other activities that make children feel special.
He talked about the joy and pain that comes from living a life of concern for others.
The purpose of my call was to not only catch up, but to try to tell him how much he had affected people’s lives, including mine.
Willie Burden made a lot of people into better human beings. I am one of them.