Kaelin Burnett had been waiting for this moment, this opportunity his entire life.
“It was going to be my time,” the Nevada Wolf Pack defensive end said this week. “Everything I wanted was right there in front of me. Everything I worked for was right there for me.”
Now a senior, Burnett was finally getting the chance to become a full-time starter for the Wolf Pack football team. He was also going to walk across a stage, collect his diploma and graduate in front of family and friends at the end of the following month. The kid who grew up just minutes from the magic kingdom and fantasy world of Disneyland in Southern California was clearly in the happiest place on earth last spring.
Life, though, rarely is as carefree as a Disney movie.
The next thing Burnett knew he was laying on the ground wondering if his dreams had just come crashing down to earth along with his left hip.
“I couldn’t get up,” Burnett said. “I knew it was serious.”
This was not supposed to be the way his dream season began. Not on a practice field in April, not against his own teammates, not before it really even started.
Not now. Especially not now.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” said Burnett as he finished a grueling practice with his teammates this week in preparation for the Wolf Pack’s game at Boise State on Saturday. “It was April 8. It was a Friday. We were out here (on the Pack’s practice field) during spring ball.”
And, as usual, he was having the time of his life.
“Kaelin Burnett loves this game,” Wolf Pack defensive ends coach Ken Wilson said. “He’s the type of guy who during our Friday walk-throughs, he’s jumping over the pile trying to make a tackle.”
That’s all he was doing. Playing the game he loves with a bunch of teammates he loves for the school he loves.
On a Friday in April.
“I went up in the air to knock down a screen pass,” Burnett said. “I got pushed in the air and landed on my hip.”
The doctors later told him the crack in the right side of his pelvis looked as if he had been knocked off a raging bull.
“They told me they had never seen it before from a football injury,” Burnett said. “It was split open (vertically) all along the side. They said it was the type of injury rodeo cowboys usually get after they get knocked off a horse or bull.”
So much for that magical senior year. Burnett was told his football career was likely over.
“It was a tough, tough 48 hours or so, sitting in the hospital with him, talking with him,” Wilson said. “His family was all out of town and couldn’t get there until the next day so as a coach you are there with him.
“That was a real tough time for him. But it really wasn’t about football at that moment. We were just worried about the young man. He was in such pain. He didn’t know if his career was over. There were just a lot of unknowns.”
One of the unknowns, it turns out, was Burnett’s character and drive. Yes, the doctors knew he had a rodeo cowboy crack in his pelvis. What they didn’t know was what else was inside Kaelin Burnett.
“I got so much support from my family, my teammates, my coaches, everyone,“ Burnett said. “They kept me going.”
He needed all of them more than he could tell them.
“I was so down,” he said. “I thought my career was over, that I couldn’t play the game I loved so much anymore. But everyone was so positive. They got me to believe I could overcome this. I had everyone in my corner.”
If this was a Disney movie, a beautiful princess would have walked into his hospital room, kissed him as he slept with a backdrop of cheerful blue jays flying about and chirping a happy song. And the hip and pelvis would have magically healed.
It didn’t happen that way.
“It took a lot of prayer, a lot of vitamins and a lot of rest,” Burnett said. “There were points along the way when I did think my career was over. I was talking to my coaches about possibly getting a medical red-shirt year in case I could come back next year.”
Burnett, to be sure, has never expected his life to be a Disney fairytale. This is a young man, after all, whose father died before he was born. He grew up amidst drug use and gang violence just outside Los Angeles. When he was 5-years-old, his mother packed up her family and moved everyone in with an uncle in nearby Fontana, Calif., just to escape the gang violence and danger during the riots in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s.
Yes, Disneyland was minutes away, but that wasn’t Main Street, USA outside his front door.
“Growing up in L.A. is tough,” Burnett said. “There’s a lot of drugs, a lot of gang violence, a lot of things to hurt you. There are so many routes you can go with your life.”
Many of those routes, Burnett learned, can lead a young man into places he doesn’t belong. Burnett, though, learned a valuable lesson early in life, a lesson he will carry with him the rest of his days.
“It is so easy to do wrong in life and so hard to do right,” he said.
Burnett has always been one to take the difficult path. That’s why, above all else this past spring, he refused to let a split pelvis destroy his dreams. And it certainly wasn’t going to keep him from getting that diploma he worked so hard to earn.
“Oh, I walked across that stage and got my diploma,” Burnett said, his face lighting up with a huge smile. “Actually, I didn’t walk. I had two crutches with me going across that stage. But I got it.”
After that, well, anything was possible.
“For two months I was like a car with two flat tires,” said Burnett, describing the aftermath of his surgery in April. “I could barely walk, let alone run. And it was horrible because I love to run.”
By the middle of June, he was running. Less than two months later he was running after quarterbacks once again on the practice field.
“That’s when I knew it was a possibility I could play this year,” he said. “When I could run. You can’t play this game unless you can run. After that it was just a matter of taking care of my body.”
Sometimes, it seems, Disney movies do come true. Burnett somehow beat the odds, returned from his career-threatening injury in time for the start of practices in early August and has started all three of the Pack’s games this year.
“He’s been through a lot,” Wilson said. “He had shoulder surgery (in 2008) and got through that. He never flinched when that happened and he didn’t flinch this time either.”
There is no time to flinch, after all, when you are chasing your dreams.
That’s what he was taught his entire life by his mother (Debraka Griffin) and his older brother Kevin, a seven-year veteran in the National Football League with the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers and now Miami Dolphins.
“Those are the two people who have had the biggest influence in my life,” said Burnett, flashing that smile once again. “Those two are my role models.”
The 28-year-old Kevin is 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, about an inch shorter and 15 pounds heavier than the 22-year-old Kaelin.
“All my life, people have come up to me and said, ‘You look like a basketball player. What are you doing playing football?’” the 6-4, 225-pound Burnett said. “Well, it’s because of my brother Kevin. Kevin chose football. He showed me what you can achieve in this sport. He’s the reason I play football. If he played basketball I’d probably be a basketball player right now.”
Kevin is also the biggest reason Kaelin was able to survive the streets of Los Angeles.
“He kept me in line,” Burnett said. “A young man is going to want what a young man wants. I had a few times in my life when I made some wrong decisions. That’s just part of growing up. But my brother was always there for me.”
And big brother wasn’t always a friendly face.
“He disciplined me and if I did the wrong thing he’d take things away from me, like video games, going out at night,” Burnett said. “Now I’m glad he did those things. He was tough on me. But I know now he only did it for my own good.
He did it for a reason, so I could learn which route to take in life to be able to become a success.”
Burnett was a success the moment he hobbled across that stage in May on two crutches to pick up his diploma. The fact that he’s been able to play football this year when medical experts told him it was likely an impossibility, well, that is just icing on the Kaelin Burnett cake.
“All my life, growing up in L.A., I wanted to be something different than what I saw around me,” Burnett said. “I wanted people to look at me and say, ‘He did it. He graduated from college just like his brother.’ I wanted them to say positive things about how my life turned out. When I graduated my family was so proud of me. Just seeing how happy they were made it all worth while.”
Football, you see, is merely Kaelin Burnett’s passion. And, make no mistake, there’s no place he’d rather be than on a football field. But never forget that Kaelin Burnett is more than just a football player.
That, too, he owes to his brother Kevin and his mother.
“Growing up, Kevin would never reward me for football,” Burnett said. “He’d only reward me for getting good grades in school. With Kevin, it’s not about sports. That’s just his path to success. With Kevin, it’s always been about education and helping people. That’s what is important to me, too.”
The Kevin Burnett Foundation supports literacy and education.
“Those are the things that are important to him,” Burnett said. “He’s all about giving back to the community and helping others.”
Those are traits, Burnett believes, that were given to the Burnett boys by their father.
“I was about 5 or 6 when my mom told me my father died in a car accident,” Burnett said. “I kind of understood what it all meant but I was still a little boy. I was just worried about little boy things.
“But as I’ve gotten older, I‘ve thought about my father a lot. Things like what he was like, what kind of man he was or how my life would have turned out if he was still around. People have told me he was the kind of man who would always look out for everybody, the kind of man who cared about other people.”
Debraka Griffin is a social worker in Los Angeles County who raised one son to be a National Football League player and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, one son who is a college football player and a graduate of the University of Nevada, one daughter who is a Stanford University graduate and another daughter who is a student at Tennessee State.
“She is a remarkable woman,” said Burnett of his mother. “She is so supportive of all of us. She was just a strong, positive role model for all of us. She always tells me she is so happy for me because I‘m able to play the sport I love. And she always tells me she’s happy if I’m happy.”
Kaelin Burnett is definitively in the happiest place on earth right now.
“I’m healthy, I’m 100 percent, I’m ready to go,” he said.
Burnett came to the Wolf Pack in 2008 after one season at Division II Delta State in Mississippi. He originally committed to Bowling Green after his freshman year at Delta State.
“That didn’t work out,” he said. “So I called here and asked if they‘d give me a second chance. I originally turned them down so I didn’t know if they still wanted me. But Coach (Chris) Ault gave me a second chance and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. He didn’t have to do that.”
Burnett’s remarkable recovery from his hip and pelvis injury last April has also given him another second chance. He has nine tackles and no sacks through three games.
“That’s a little misleading,” Wilson said. “Kaelin’s been in a lot more than just nine tackles. He’s probably been in twice that amount but when you are on the road like we’ve been, sometimes you don’t always get the stats you deserve. So he’s played well.”
But both the Pack and Burnett know he can play better.
“We need more production out of him,” Wilson said. “He knows that. We need him to be a playmaker, a difference-maker for us.”
Burnett has taken over the defensive end position this season that once was the home of Dontay Moch, one of the greatest playmakers in Wolf Pack history.
“Dontay was a great player,” said Burnett, who played behind Moch for two seasons. “But Dontay Moch was Dontay Moch and all Kaelin Burnett can be is Kaelin Burnett.”
That’s enough for the Pack. It was certainly enough last Jan. 9 when Burnett had two sacks against Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
“Kaelin can make plays,” Wilson said. “He’s stronger than he looks. He’s a tall, thin guy but that allows him to slip through cracks to make plays other guys can’t make. And he’s not afraid of anything. He takes on those 300-pound offensive linemen and doesn’t back down.”
Wilson said Burnett hasn’t lost any explosiveness or strength because of his injury last April.
“He just needs to build his stamina up,” Wilson said. “In the past he was on and off the field so he was able to rest more and stay fresh. He had more explosiveness last year because he was always rested. This year we need him to be out there all the time. So he just has to build up his endurance. It will come.”
Burnett said you can count on it.
“Just keep watching,” he says with a smile. “Just keep watching.”