CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When senior linebacker Victor Burnett takes the field for Southern Illinois' season opener versus Taylor on Aug. 28, it will mark an amazing triumph for a player who was told just two years ago that he'd likely never play football again. It will also validate the decision of a head coach who stood beside him every step of the way.
During the second quarter of SIU's game versus Indiana State on Sept. 29, 2012, Burnett's left foot became trapped in the turf, causing him to sustain a grisly knee injury. The diagnosis from the doctor was grim. He had torn his ACL, LCL, both meniscus, fractured the bone and sheared off the cartilage. In short, it appeared his career was over.
After the shock wore off, Burnett had to decide what to do next? At the age of 19, he'd moved all the way from Los Angeles to Carbondale to prove himself as a football player. Should he now throw in the towel?
"A lot of college football coaches would have given up on a player in my situation," Burnett said. "He's stayed with me through this whole injury process. He didn't pressure me to come back too fast. He gave me time to get through the rehab."
Not only did Burnett miss the rest of the 2012 season, but the knee required additional surgery that wiped out his 2013 campaign, as well.
"There were some depressing moments, but my faith in God kept my spirits up," he said. "I knew I was in the storm, but the storm eventually has to pass. I kept pushing, kept pushing to see if it was meant to be."
The knee improved enough for him to participate in non-contact drills during spring ball four months ago. Then, in early summer, he had 3.5 inches of scar tissue removed that had built up on top of his ACL, and suddenly, he was able to get full range of motion in the knee. Working with strength coach Clete McLeod, he significantly improved his strength and quickness this summer.
There was only one test remaining: Would the knee hold up under live contact? This past Saturday, he easily crossed that bridge, leading the defense with seven tackles during the team's first full-contact scrimmage. After starting camp listed fourth string on the depth chart, Burnett has worked with the first and second teams this week.
"I'm super happy, and I don't care what string I'm on," he said after Wednesday's practice. "Every moment is a humbling moment. Whether I'm on defense or special teams or standing on the sidelines, I just want to contribute to the team, keep everyone in high spirits."
He said the knee still gets sore, but he takes ice baths twice a day, and so far it's holding up just fine during camp.
Burnett said he wouldn't be here today except for Lennon. Coming out of high school, Burnett was one of the top-ranked linebackers in the nation, with offers from schools such as Miami, West Virginia and Arizona. He chose Washington, but was dismissed from the team prior to his redshirt freshman season. After sitting out a year, a number of schools recruited him, but only Lennon flew out to personally meet him face-to-face.
"I had to go into work that day, so he came at 6 in the morning to meet me, my mom and my grandmother," Burnett explained. "He was very genuine. He asked me what my objectives were? Was education really important to me, because it's really big with them. Coming from my circumstances, he told me I'd have to earn the trust of the whole coaching staff. I'd have to earn everything -- nothing would be given to me. I felt God sent him out here to give me a second chance."
Burnett has made the most of that second opportunity. He's already earned his bachelor's degree in journalism and advertising, and is working on a master's in speech communications. He did an internship in the media management and marketing department for Fox in Los Angeles. He even opened his own line of clothing and said he's sold more than 500 items from his website actriteclothing.com.
"All my teammates wear my clothes around campus and spread the word," said Burnett, whose entrepreneurial spirit comes from his mom, who owns a hair salon in Los Angeles. "I've always wanted to open a store, be an innovator. I know how to dress a little bit, so I thought bringing a little style from Los Angeles to Illinois could be successful."
He said he can't thank his head coach enough for supporting him throughout the peaks and valleys of his career.
"Coach Lennon went out on a limb for me, and I love him to death."