Oct. 13, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Joe Burns stunned plenty of people when he chose to play football at Georgia Tech rather than at Florida State like his hometown idol, yet he’s the one surprised that he’s about to be inducted into the school’s Sports Hall of Fame.
His career numbers make Friday’s induction easy to understand. When he left The Flats in 2001, the 5-foot-9 tailback from Thomas County Central High School was the fourth-leading rusher (2,634 yards) and second-leading touchdown scorer (34) in school history.
He had a year of eligibility left, however, and when he opted to move onto the NFL and in the process missed the Seattle Bowl because of the way he mishandled his early departure, Burns left a sour taste behind.
That part of Burns’ legacy — his greatest regret at Tech — is fading.
“Charlie Ward [who won the 1993 Heisman Trophy while playing quarterback for FSU] was from my high school, and he was a big hero and mentor,” Burns explained. “I worked so hard to go to FSU, but throughout the journey I developed so much pride, and [Tech] had the same mascot and I got to keep the same number.
“Everybody was surprised. I had a coach from one of the other schools – I won’t say which one – tell me, ‘Joe, those are not your kind of people [at Tech].’ My dad said, ‘You can go to any of these schools, but if you go to college in state and keep your nose clean, you can do a lot of things.”
Burns chose to be a Yellow Jacket, opting against Florida State and South Carolina, and played immediately for Tech.
He led the Jackets in rushing with 474 yards as a freshman in 1998, received a medical redshirt season in ’99 after breaking an ankle, earned honorable mention All-ACC in 2000 with 908 yards, 26 receptions and 12 touchdowns, and was first team All-ACC in ’01 with 1,165 yards, 14 touchdowns and another 28 receptions.
Not bad for a young man who was once told he was too small to play.
Burns’ parents, Joe Sr. and Cleo, moved from the family hearth in Thomasville to the Atlanta suburb of Morrow while he was in elementary school. He moved back down south in time for seventh grade.
Living with his grandparents for a year before his parents and younger sister returned was difficult, but that set the stage for a glorious high school career playing for the Thomas County Central Yellow Jackets – his father’s alma mater.
“In Morrow, a coach told me I was too small to play for the middle school team and he said I had to play another year of rec ball,” Burns recalled. “My dad said, ‘I know where you can play; I can send you back home. You don’t know this, but your name may cause you problems.’ “
Burns had a growth spurt, jumping to 5-9 as a seventh grader.
“I was wearing size 12 shoes at age 12,” he said. “But I never grew another inch. My dad’s 6-2, and my mom’s 5-4.”
Joe Jr. never matched his father’s height, but he did the name proud at Central. The Yellow Jackets won state titles in his freshman, junior and senior seasons, and he had plenty to do with that.
After rushing for 2,006 yards and 32 touchdowns in ’96, he added 1,941 yards and 24 more scores in ’97.
Then, he remained a Yellow Jacket, and hung onto jersey No. 35 while churning for Georgia Tech.
“My fondest memory would have to be beating Georgia three years in a row [’98-‘00],” Burns said. “And another one that touched me was when, after we played FSU, [former] coach Bobby Bowden told me I was one of the toughest players he ever saw, and, ‘I wish I hadn’t let you get away.’ “
Burns, who married former Tech student Tiffany Massey a few years after leaving school, lives in Atlanta where he and former Buffalo Bills teammate Izell Reese run RisingSeniors.com and Up Next Recruiting to help aspiring student-athletes navigate the recruiting process.
Several current Jackets – and Bulldogs — have passed through the programs.
“It’s a leadership and educational program,” he said. “We take juniors and prepare them for life after football and help them understand [college athletics and scholarships] can be a great opportunity.
“We’re trying to inspire student-athletes to dominate each quarter, and take advantage . . . something that I didn’t do.”
That brings Burns to his greatest regret – leaving Tech in awkward fashion.
As his superb junior season wound down, he was considering entering the NFL draft in the spring of 2002. When head coach George O’Leary decided in early December to accept the head coaching position at Notre Dame, he made up his mind and all but stopped doing his school work.
He was declared academically ineligible, and did not play in the Seattle Bowl, where the Jackets upset No. 11 Stanford, 24-14.
“My biggest regret at Tech . . . I’m thinking about leaving too soon, not finishing my junior year off like I should have if I was never thinking about NFL,” Burns recalled. “Not being able to play in that bowl game and be with my teammates . . .
“I wanted to be the all-time leading scorer and rusher when I arrived, but with coach O’Leary leaving, I didn’t want to come back with a new coach. I made up my mind that if he’s leaving, I was going. I was just trying to do the bare minimum [academically] the last few weeks, trying to skim by and it almost cost me the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Burns is living proof that sad stories can be re-written.
He went undrafted by an NFL team, yet made the Bills’ 53-man roster the next summer in part because of the way he played in a preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings, who by then had O’Leary as defensive line coach.
“I think it affected me draft wise, but I think I did well with my interviews with NFL teams. I told them I made an immature decision and I didn’t think it would make a difference,” Burns said. “I didn’t think finishing strong would matter.”
Even Burns’ marriage is a tale of life circling around.
Tiffany Massey was his first crush, back when he lived in Morrow. Years later, as the Yellow Jackets were making another state title run, she came back into his life when Jonesboro High met Central in the playoffs.
“We lost contact until 11th grade, and she was a cheerleader for Jonesboro,” Burns said. “She came up after the game. It was kind of weird because I had a girlfriend at the time. I was just so shocked. I never thought that I’d be seeing her. She said she was going to Tech.”
Burns wound up on The Flats as well, and when he returns for Friday’s Hall of Fame inductions at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, he’ll complete a broken circle of sorts.
“It’s a big deal for me. I’ve been thinking about all the opportunities, all the hard work and dedication, the great coaching staffs and my teammates, all my offensive linemen,” he said. “Without all that, without all of them, I wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m very humble, and super excited.”
“Honestly, the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame never crossed my mind. The only one I thought about was the one in my hometown because my dad got into it. This was never on my radar.”