Ohio State LB Joe Burger arrived in Columbus as an undersized walk-on. Now he's the Buckeyes team captain.
Robert Burger wasn't having it. He was fine with the idea of one of his grandchildren, Joe, the youngest of Bob and Felicia's four boys, trying to walk on at one of the most storied schools in college football history. Robert Burger has respected one of those tradition-rich programs, Notre Dame, for decades. The Burgers didn't just like America's most prominent Catholic university, they loved the Irish. Robert sent not one or two sons to Notre Dame but all three, and two of his three daughters attended St. Mary's College, its sister school. The Burgers had a strong, and proud, Notre Dame pipeline.
And now Joe Burger wanted to go screw it up by going to Ohio State?
"How could you do this to me?!" Robert cried to Bob.
"That choice didn't go over so well with the family," Joe admits now. Because he was in a confessional mood, he came clean about everything. Yes, he rooted for Notre Dame and against the Buckeyes as a kid. Yes, there are a lot of pictures of him in Notre Dame gear, including a creative take on the Notre Dame Four Horsemen that the Burger family sent out as a Christmas card years ago. "If my wife and I were in charge of the decision, he would have gone to Notre Dame," Bob says. "But he wanted to do something different. It's not like he's a radical or anything."
When it came time to pick a school, something about Ohio State—the academic standards, the promise of a return to glory under new leadership—lured Joe to Columbus.
The first fall camp, under new coach Urban Meyer, was brutal. Long, hard, physical practices where Meyer educated his players on what "toughness" really meant. So many inside drills and one-on-one competitions that players lost count. It was a three-hour grind every day. Joe groans at the memory. Some walk-ons in that situation wouldn't just decide they didn't want to play at Ohio State, they'd decide they didn't want to play anywhere. Not Burger. Playing under Meyer would take some getting used to, he realized, but they were all in this together, and they'd figure it out. "Urban was, uh, new to all of us," Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, recalls wryly. Exhaustion hit the coaches, too as they learned what toughness as an assistant really meant when you work for one of the hardest workers in college football. But then Fickell got a jolt of adrenaline one day when a walk-on caught his eye.
"At one point we're doing a hard hat drill and basically, some scout team guy has to take 13 shots in a row," Fickell says. "Some guys take one, two, maybe three, and try to get out of it. Joe took all 13 and never asked for a sub. I thought, 'This kid is special.'"
Had Fickell done research on the Burger clan, he would have understood standing out when little is expected of you is, well, expected in their family.
See, the Burgers don't just believe in the Irish—they believe in walking on. Each of Joe's three older brothers have a story of perseverance. Bobby, age 28, played fullback and tight end at Notre Dame; Chris, 26, golfed at Xavier and has played in a few US Amateur events; John, 23, also golfed at Xavier. All started as walk-ons before eventually earning scholarships. But the boys weren't exactly the trend-setters in the family. That role goes to dad Bob, a former walk-on offensive linemen who played for the Irish from 1977-80. The walk-on route was hardest for Bob, probably. "He came in as, like, seventh on the depth chart at center," Joe says. "I didn't know they even went that deep."
In reality, Joe Burger, who has recorded seven tackles in five games for the No. 2 Buckeyes this season, had no other choice but to walk on, and prove he could hang. He was raised in competition, after all. He's spent a lifetime fighting for his spot.
"Oh, he got picked on," says older brother Bobby. "And he definitely got picked on more than anyone." In the Burgers' house, play time often dissolved into no-holds-barred wrestling matches. Joe never let being the youngest, or the smallest, intimidate him. Dripping with sweat, hair plastered to their foreheads, the four boys would push and shove, scrape and scratch until their father walked in to check in on the ruckus. "Looks like a rough game of Old Maid," he'd deadpan, retreating to the hallway and letting the boys continue.
Mom, Felicia, was just as important in the development of four college athletes, Bob says, and the boys agree. She was just as tough as any of the guys. Bobby proudly shares an anecdote that in the seventh grade, when Felicia would come to volunteer in his class, she'd arm wrestle all the other seventh graders, just for fun. She remains undefeated.
Don't ask about the best athlete in the family. That's been a decades-long debate, and it continues to rage. There's disagreement on who is the worst loser is, too. Joe is a leading contender, though. As a little kid, he'd grow furious when he struck out in baseball, throwing his batting gloves and helmet, and engaging in raging temper tantrums. If he hit a bad shot on the golf course, he'd throw his club then have to sit out the next hole.
"All he wanted to do is succeed," Bobby says. "Because all he had done, since he was little, was go to our games and watch us succeed."
That explains why, when Joe was put on scholarship at Ohio State, he told his dad with a sigh of relief, "I was worried I was going to be the only one in the family who didn't get a scholarship."
As Joe contemplated if Ohio State was right for him (he says he had a handful of MAC offers), Bob told him two things. First, dream big dreams—but chase them only if you're ready to be fully committed. Second, no matter where Joe decided to go, there was one recipe for success: Find the hardest worked on the team, the guy everyone respects, and outwork him.
Bobby didn't pass on advice so much as provide reinforcement that the work was worth it. "One thing Bobby did tell me was that the crowd, the first time you hear it, you remember it forever. You remember everything outside of the actual football" Joe says. His first collegiate snaps came in the 2013 season opener against Buffalo, when the Buckeyes' first-string linebacker's helmet popped off, and Joe got waved in. Now he's used to the chaos. "Once you're not thinking about all the extra stuff, you just thinking about how you're doing your job, and then you play football like you did in elementary school," he says. There's a freedom and confidence that comes with knowing you belong.
He didn't think it could get any better, or cooler, but then Ohio State went and won the national champions in 2014, the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff. He got time in every game, including the title game against Oregon, where he played in 15 special teams plays. Ask Bob Burger what it's like to share the distinction of winning a national title with your kid, even if he did go to a rival school, and he pauses for a second. In a voice thick with emotion, he sums it up simply as "amazing."
That's the word the entire family, and assistant coach Fickell, also use to describe Burger's election, by his teammates, as captain for the 2016 team. That's a whole new level, Bobby says proudly. From walk-on to scholarship athlete to team leader? It's a route few have taken, let alone at a powerhouse like Ohio State.
"Guys who succeed at this level do it because their first passion is just being a part of the program, as opposed to guys who get here and then become obsessed with 'OK, I have to get a scholarship,'" Fickell explains. Joe didn't do that. Instead, he took joy in the process.
Grandpa found happiness in that journey, too. Still does. Once a die-hard Notre Dame fan, Robert Burger gladly ties an Ohio State scarf around his neck every Saturday now. He's eager to cheer on the grandson who had the guts, and the heart, to try something out of the ordinary. And Robert appreciates that even if Joe took a different path, he used guidance from his family the whole way.