Red Zone

Draft spotlight: Avila running back Kelwin Burke Jr. has come a long way

In 2013, Kelwin Burke Jr. became Avila’s first-ever 1,000-yard rusher and earned first-team Heart of America Athletic Conference honors, but a thumb injury limited him last season.
In 2013, Kelwin Burke Jr. became Avila’s first-ever 1,000-yard rusher and earned first-team Heart of America Athletic Conference honors, but a thumb injury limited him last season. Photo courtesy of Avila University

The purpose of this feature is to highlight small-school and under-the-radar guys who show glimpses of potential. The series began with a short look at Emporia State free safety Lyndell Johnson, so click here to check that out.

It’s certainly not an understatement to say Avila running back Kelwin Burke Jr. has taken the long road to become an NFL Draft prospect.

Before he became the first 1,000-yard rusher in school history, in 2013, Burke overcame numerous obstacles on his way to becoming a college football player.

As a high school freshman, Burke, a New Orleans native, was displaced from his home in 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina. He ultimately wound up at Madison High School in Houston, where he was good enough to be offered a handful of partial scholarships as a senior.

However, it would take him years before he could make an impact on the college level. Burke says that after a stint at Blinn Community College, he landed at Grambling State, where he could be closer to home — and his son.

“I was working out and trying to get on the team as a walk-on,” Burke said.

When it became clear to Burke, 24, that it wasn’t going to happen, he quit the team in summer 2013 and landed a job as a bellman at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside.

But while Burke had come to grips with the reality that his football dream was probably over, he says his father had not. During this time, Burke says his dad sent out his highlight tape all over the country.

“Basically, he really wasn’t ready for it to be over because that was his dream, too, and he wasn’t ready to give up on it,“ Burke said. “My dad was sending out my game film, but I didn’t know.”

The film ultimately caught the eye of Avila’s coaching staff, which extended an offer to Burke.

“He was at Grambling for a couple years and never got to play because he could never get himself qualified,” said Avila coach Justin Berna. “His dad was sending emails out, and I emailed him back. We talked all summer, saw his high school film and liked what we saw, so we stayed on him and offered him a partial scholarship.”

Burke figured it was worth a shot.

“I was tired (of football) … and putting my body on the line,” Burke said. “But I took a chance … I got the papers and I signed, turned around and went straight to Kansas City and knew nothing about it.”

Burke eventually had to adjust to the climate — the entire concept of snow was foreign to him — but he arrived on campus that summer, promptly stepped in as the starter and rushed for 1,336 yards and 17 touchdowns. He earned first-team Heart of America Athletic Conference honors during a season in which he became the program’s first-ever 1,000-yard rusher.

Berna says it didn’t take long to see that Burke had some natural gifts, even though he wasn’t in football shape when he arrived.

“It was in camp, we were watching him and he ran a zone play and cut it back — that’s when we knew he was good,” Berna said. “It was very natural. You could tell he hadn’t played football in a couple years, but he had natural vision and cutting ability that lot of guys don’t have.”

Burke was ready for bigger and better things in 2014, his senior year, but he suffered a broken thumb with a torn ligament that made it hard for him to carry the ball and was held to 466 yards and six touchdowns on 121 carries.

Still, Burke hasn’t let that deter him from chasing his next dream — playing professional football. Burke, who is listed at 5 feet 10 and 195 pounds, attended the NFL regional combine in Denver in late February and is preparing for his pro day on March 27.

“I’m really a diamond in the rough,” said Burke, who has two children to support. “I know if I can get on someone’s team, I can work my way on.”

Berna also believes that to be the case.

“To be completely honest, I think he’s pretty good,” Berna said. “He could have played at Grambling, and he could have played there and at a high level. But there’s a lot that needed to happen for that to happen … Him taking all that time off killed him. But I think if somebody invites him to camp, I think he’d surprise them. I think they would say he’s not a bad player.”

So what say you, Chiefs fans?

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TerezPaylor.

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