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Tom Burke: Walk-on linebacker gets starting role against BC

Chris Masoud | Friday, November 20, 2009

The stat line of Notre Dame’s victory over Boston College this season featured the numbers Irish fans have come to expect from the star playmakers. What the box score and game notes don’t show is the biggest moment in senior Tom Burke’s career.

Starting on the punt return team for the Irish, Burke stepped onto the field for the first time in a regular season game.

“That was just really surreal,” Burke said. “As a walk-on you’re on the sidelines every week, but that day was my day to contribute and play meaningful time in the game. The first time stepping off that sideline actually onto the field to play a down against an opposing team with the crowd and the intensity of the game, it was really special, and I’ll never forget that.”

A 5-foot-10, 242-pound inside linebacker from New City, N.Y., Burke had the aspiration of suiting up for the Irish implanted at an early age. After putting together exceptional numbers in high school, including a 14-tackle game, Burke realized his dream could become a reality.

“I always wanted to go to Notre Dame since I was little,” Burke said. “I’m the first in my family to go here, but I always knew it was a special place. It was always a goal going through high school, and I’ve worked hard and was able to come.”

While balancing the workload of a double major in finance and economics and the commitment to the team, Burke says he appreciates his decision to come to Notre Dame each day.

“I’ve met my best friends out here in school, and I’m sure they’ll be my best friends for the rest of my life,” he said. “Notre Dame just brings a lot of people who are very similar together, who have good values and do well in school, but also who like to have a good time.”

A commitment to play football for the Irish is much more than just a season of practices and Saturday afternoon games. The relationships and community Burke has formed with his teammates will last longer than any achievement on the gridiron.

“Naturally all the walk-ons are really close,” Burke said. “You go through a lot of the same things, you have the same experiences and naturally that binds you pretty tight. It doesn’t really matter who it is, whether it’s Brian Smith at linebacker, a really welcoming guy, or Kerry Neal or John Ryan. They’re all just really good guys and we have a really good team dynamic.”

Unless your name is Rudy, walk-ons usually don’t get the praise and glory attached to scholarship players. Nevertheless, Burke has come to take pride in his role as scout team middle linebacker, pushing himself and his teammates to get better each week.

“It does get pretty intense between the scout team and the offense, and that’s our job, to make it intense,” Burke said. “We’re never going to be able to completely mimic the look that another team is giving on Saturday because naturally we have some limitations, but we bring it as hard as we can and we like to think that we compete pretty hard.”

More so than other football programs, Notre Dame’s legacy commands the unwanted attention of critics and the media that can bring a team down before it even takes the field. Burke says Irish coach Charlie Weis’ mentality, a mentality that he has come to adopt, keeps the team focused every week.

“I’m from New York, but I was born in New Jersey, so I’m right around from that area where he’s from, and I think I get his attitude,” Burke said. “Playing at Notre Dame is kind of us against the world, and he understands that. He’s always going about for the team and for our players and for the University, and I really respect that.”

With his football days numbered, Burke says he will miss running out of the tunnel and strapping on the gold helmet every day. More importantly, he will never take for granted the opportunity to play for the Irish.

“I just think being a walk-on especially is going to pay dividends in a lot of ways in the future,” Burke said. “A lot of times, you’re the low man on the totem pole and you have to work just as hard and harder than everyone else to get noticed to earn that kind of respect. The people who can survive as a walk-on have the attributes to be successful in whatever they want to do.”