SALEM, Va. -- Despite a prolific career as a quarterback at a prominent Ohio football powerhouse, Kevin Burke wasn’t on the recruiting radar of very many colleges, big or small, coming out of Lakewood St. Edward High School near Cleveland.
Ohio was the only NCAA Division I school to approach Burke about playing, and the OU coaching staff wanted Burke to walk on as a wide receiver. Kevin’s older brother Jeff had played wide receiver for Georgetown in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, and the Hoyas made a similar offer.
The Purple Raiders wanted Burke to come play quarterback for them.
“I just love playing quarterback and that’s what I was used to. So I thought, ‘Why not just go play quarterback for one of the best teams in Division III?’ “ Burke said Wednesday.
It has worked out well.
Now a junior, Burke will guide 14-0 Mount Union into the DIII national championship game against 14-0 Wisconsin-Whitewater on 7:05 p.m. ET Friday. It will be the Purple Raiders’ ninth consecutive appearance in the Stagg Bowl -- eight of them coming against UW-Whitewater.
“I think it’s a funny thing that we keep seeing them,” Burke said. “But that’s just a credit to them and us that we make it through four games in the playoffs year after year. They’re a great team, so I’m not surprised that they’re here. And we’re a great team, too, so it’s going to be a fun matchup on Friday.”
Despite standing only 5-foot-11 and weighing an unimposing 190 pounds, the bearded Burke is without a doubt Mount Union’s most dynamic player. The winner of the Gagliardi Trophy, an award that annually goes to the most outstanding player in Division III football, Burke enters Friday’s title tilt with some remarkable numbers for the season.
He has completed 212 of 337 passes for nearly 63 percent and 3,514 yards. His 44 touchdown passes lead the nation, and he’s thrown only seven interceptions. Meanwhile, he’s also the Purple Raiders’ second-leading rusher with 1,035 yards on 183 carries for a 5.7 yards-per-carry average – and he’s scored a team-high 13 rushing touchdowns.
“Well, the stats are impressive,” Mount Union coach Vince Kehres said. “What he does on the field is amazing. It almost doesn’t surprise me anymore, to see what he does on the field. But it is the intangibles that are the key things about Kevin. It’s the poise he has in tough situations; it’s the confidence that he shows throughout a week of preparation and through games.
“He’s the heart and soul of our team. I think not just our offensive guys but the whole team feeds off of that. There is no doubt in my mind that we’re here because of him and those intangibles that he brings.”
Burke needed to bring all of his talents to bear in Mount Union’s semifinal playoff game against North Central (Ill.). Playing in a blizzard at home in Alliance, Ohio, Burke led a late game-winning touchdown drive in a 41-40 victory -- capping a day in which he completed 12 of 19 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown while also rushing for 131 yards and two TDs on 28 carries.
“It was fun. It kind of just brings you back to when you were little, playing in the snow and in Turkey Bowls or whatever,” Burke said.
“We just went out and played our game and didn’t panic when we got down late. Obviously in a game like that, there is going to be more running than passing. But getting a win in that type of atmosphere at home was just awesome. Getting the game-winning drive that late in the fourth quarter was a phenomenal, and then our defense did a good job sealing the game.”
Middle linebacker Cole Klotz of UW-Whitewater took notice of Burke’s heroics.
“Burke, he’s a dual threat,” Klotz said. “He can read a defense extremely well. The key to that is just not to do too much. You watch film of a lot of the teams they’ve played, and a lot of the guys on defense tend to lose sight of their job and not do it correctly. And that’s where they’re able to exploit you. So the key to that is to throw a lot of different looks at them, but stay within yourself and do the job that you’re supposed to do every time.”
Burke knows he has a knack for knocking opposing defenses out of whack. It’s one of the great pleasures he derives from still playing quarterback, and he said it makes him think back to when he almost gave it up to chase the dream of playing Division I football – which would have come at the cost of him converting to wide receiver.
“It wasn’t too hard of a decision. It was kind of hard to realize, ‘Well, you’re not going to get any Division I [scholarship] offers.’“ he admitted. “But then you just see what the next choice is. It’s hard for any high-school athlete; they all want a scholarship and to play Division I. But when that doesn’t happen, you need to say, ‘OK, what’s next?’
“Mount Union called and said they wanted me to play quarterback. I visited and fell in love with the place and the rest is history.”
It was then suggested to Burke that it seemed to be a pretty good decision to keep playing quarterback. He smiled broadly and replied, “I would have to agree.”