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Our Stories: Freddie Burden

Oct. 26, 2016

Freddie Burden (as told to Justin Fedich)

“Our Stories” is a feature that provides first-person stories from current Georgia Tech student-athletes on their journey through academics, competition and life once their athletic careers are over. These young men and women represent the ideals of what it means to be a STUDENT-athlete at Georgia Tech. These are their stories.

My name is Freddie Burden. I’m a 6-foot-4, 299-pound redshirt senior and I play center for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets football team. I am 22 years old, and my four-plus years as a student athlete haven’t been easy. I’ve had to overcome both injury and personal loss. But through it all, I’ve come out of it a better man, one who is undeterred by the challenges that lie before me.

My father, Willie, died on Dec. 4, 2015, from congestive heart failure. To this day, the 10 months spent watching my father’s health deteriorate from his disease was the hardest time of my life.

In order to know who I am, it’s important to first learn who my father was.

My father was a star running back at NC State University. He won ACC Player of the Year in 1973, leading the Wolfpack to an ACC Championship, and was the first NC State player to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1974, but spent most of his professional football career in the Canadian Football League. He is in the CFL Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

My father was an incredible athlete, but he didn’t let his athletic prowess define him. He knew that football doesn’t last forever, so he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, eventually leading to him landing the athletic director position at North Carolina A&T.

Our 35-24 win over Georgia Southern on Oct. 15 felt good for a number of reasons. First, it gave us some relief by stopping a three-game skid as we headed into our bye week. Second, I beat some of my friends on the other side who I grew up with. I am from Statesboro and graduated from Statesboro High School.

My brother Willie Jr., who traveled from Washington, D.C. to see me, watched the game from the stands. He graduated from Georgia Southern, so I took delight in joking around with him postgame about beating his former team.

We moved to Statesboro from Greensboro, North Carolina, when I was 3 years old. My father was ready to leave North Carolina A&T and get out of administration, so he became a professor of sports management at Georgia Southern.

Something my father always told me is that nothing can stop me from getting to where I want to get to. He proved that in athletics and education, and I came to Georgia Tech hoping to do the same.

I played tight end in high school, but I didn’t catch many passes. I spent much of my time blocking and that’s the reason why I was recruited by Georgia Tech.

When I arrived at Georgia Tech in 2012, I was excited like every freshman football player. I wanted to be a big part of the team early, but that’s not always how it plays out. I took my first ever snaps at center as a freshman at Georgia Tech, and I was a natural at it.

When I came into the program, however, I realized how big and strong the other players were, and I knew I had to redshirt. It wasn’t easy sitting out a year being healthy, but I made the most of it. I was named the scout team’s Offensive Player of the Year that season.

I thought I was poised to take over the starting role in my second year with the team, as a redshirt freshman, but it wasn’t meant to be.

During a Saturday scrimmage before my redshirt freshman year, I fell to the ground and felt something in my knee. I tried to shake it off, but two plays later, my leg gave out. I had torn my ACL and my season was over.

I spent most of my life working towards the moment of being able to play college football for a Division I program, and the first two years I was there, I didn’t get to play a single snap. When I finally got the opportunity in 2014, healed from my ACL, I was ready.

I started all 14 games at center and helped anchor an offensive line that allowed the second-fewest sacks in the nation. Georgia Tech broke school records in rushing that year, and I earned all-ACC honorable mention in my first season ever playing center.

In 2015, my world changed. My father had dealt with heart issues since I was in high school, but I thought he had recovered and the issue would go away. I was wrong. After seeing a specialist in Atlanta, it was determined he had a protein buildup in his heart that was causing congestive heart failure. He needed a heart transplant to survive.

The longer I sat in the hospital, the more things went wrong. As things got worse, my father needed a machine to pump blood to both the left and right sides of his heart. The doctor told us Thursday that there was nothing more they could do for my father. On Friday, he was gone.

The stretch of dealing with my father’s illness was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s made me into the person I am today. I know life can get much tougher than that.

I know my father is proud of me right now, seeing all that I have accomplished so far. I also know there is much still left to accomplish, and I hear my father’s advice every day.

“They can’t stop you. The sky is the limit.”

I earned a Division I scholarship to Georgia Tech. I learned a new position and have excelled at it. But when I finish my college football playing career at the end of this season, it won’t be the last time you’ve heard of me. That’s not the way my father would want it.

I graduated with a degree in business administration and I’m currently studying for my master’s degree, although I plan to take a semester off in the spring to prepare for the NFL. I’ve learned from my father that football doesn’t last forever, so I have many dreams outside of the NFL.

I want to be a Division I football coach, a CEO of a company or even follow in my father’s footsteps in sports administration.

It’s a tall order, but I believe that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. And I’ve got someone smiling down on me who believes too.


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