Trey Burton: Through the Pain

Courtesy of USA Today

Courtesy of USA Today

TREY BURTON STOOD at his locker stall at Lincoln Financial Field in the minutes after the Eagles fell to the Cowboys, 20-10. He wore a pair of black gym shorts, and an ice pack was sandwiched between his right shoulder blade and a thick layer of plastic wrap.

“Could you pull this down for me?” he asked as he tried to fit a black mesh Eagles sweatshirt over his sore shoulder.

Burton left the game midway through the second quarter with a right shoulder injury, received an x-ray, received good news, and returned to the field. He was featured on the majority of special teams snaps the rest of the way. Officially listed as a tight end, he’s earned his steady spot on the team’s roster as a special teams expert, the glamour-less third pillar of football teams.

Tug, pull, yank, grunt. The sweatshirt reluctantly eased over the ice pack and plastic.

“Thanks.”

Then Burton slung a black backpack over his left shoulder and made his way from his locker, leaving behind locker mate Zach Ertz in a sea of reporters.

Nobody stopped Burton to ask how his shoulder was feeling.

Because of his high school coach, John Peacock, Burton tries to play through pain as long as he can. Growing up, from high school to college, he saw other players — sometimes teammates — step out of games with minor injuries, missing a couple of plays to rest up an ailing extremity.

Burton said Peacock taught him that if “you might be hurt, but you’re not injured,” you don’t come out. Every player on a football field is hurting, Peacock told him. You don’t stop playing football when you’re hurting.

You sit down when you’re injured, and not a moment sooner.

“Tough, physical, never giving up,” Burton said.

That’s how Peacock wanted his players to play the game, so Burton did, and Burton does, and Burton will.

***

IT WAS 2006, Trey Burton was driving home with his mother, and Venice High School was terrible at football. No good. Very bad. Awful.

Burton, a freshman defensive back, made the varsity team when a couple of coaches, including then-defensive coordinator John Peacock, saw potential in him during preseason tryouts. Instead of sticking him with the rest of the freshmen, who practiced separately during the afternoon, Peacock and the Venice High coaches put Burton with the varsity and JV players. They wanted to test his mettle, running and working out in the morning sessions with the seasoned players.

“He was one of the top two in anything he did,” Peacock said of Burton that summer.

Burton hadn’t played football in over a year, because he was too heavy to play football in eighth grade. A weight limit of 185 pounds — Burton was 195 — kept him locked out of the game he was born to play. Pop Warner coaches made fun of him for being unable to control his weight. In reality, he was just a very big 14-year old, and big bodies bring on big weight, but that didn’t stop them.

In high school, there was no weight limit. He impressed the coaches with his natural ability, and they put him into action as a freshman.

But then, it was 2006, Burton was driving home with his mother, and Venice High was terrible at football. No good. Very bad. Awful.

They had just lost to Sarasota High School, 35-7. It was Venice’s sixth straight loss to start the season. They had yet to look remotely competitive. In the second game of the season, Riverview High School beat Venice, 28-2. It was a long, tiresome season for Burton, and it was just getting longer. He entered the year a wide-eyed freshman ready to make a difference on a Venice High team coming off a 4-8 year. Instead, he was a member of a sad, destitute team destined for a one-win season.

So he decided he’d had enough.

On the way home from the game, Burton told his mother he wanted to transfer.

“I might want to transfer next year, and go to a better school,” he told her.

There’s a school called Manatee High School. It’s one of the best football schools in Florida. Trey wanted to play in college, and eventually the NFL, and as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t getting any help here at Venice.

“If we don’t do any better, I’m going to leave,” he told her. “I’m out of here.”

Except Cindy Burton wouldn’t hear it. Her son wasn’t a quitter. Her son wouldn’t give up and walk away.

She’d been affected by that mindset enough to last her a lifetime, and then some.

A month after Burton was born, his father left his mother behind to deal with their son on her own. Now she’s raising Burton and his two younger brothers by herself, managing her best friend’s salon and working extreme hours to support her children.

So, no, her son wasn’t giving up on this team after one bad season. He wasn’t taking the easy road out.

“You’re not going to quit,” she told Burton. “You’re not going to leave your teammates. You’re not going to do that.”

The very next season, Peacock became head coach and decided to name Burton his starting quarterback. In late October, Burton led Venice High to its seventh win in nine games, a 21-7 victory over Manatee High.

***

BURTON GREW UP with a mother, two brothers, and a supporting cast of family members stretching from his grandparents in Florida who would take him to church on Sundays, up to his Uncle Matt in Atlanta, who would take Trey and his brothers in for a few days to give his mother a brief reprieve.

But he didn’t have a true father figure in his life until he made the Venice football team and he met Peacock.

“Without John Peacock, I don’t think I am where I am today,” Burton says, sitting at his practice locker in early September.

When that sentiment is relayed to Peacock over the phone in early September, he begins to tear up. Burton holds a special place in Peacock’s mental rolodex of former charges.

There was something about Burton that stuck out to Peacock from the first practice at Venice. His work ethic was unique to a kid still in his supposedly-angsty teenage years.

Burton was always the last person to leave the locker room at away games, sticking around to pick up discarded ankle tape, making sure it looked the way it did when Venice High arrived.

Once, while his players scarfed down post-game barbecue after a preseason scrimmage, Peacock couldn’t find his quarterback. He looked down at the field they had been playing on an hour earlier, and there Burton was, running 300-meter repeats on the gray track surrounding the field.

“It’s little things like that,” Peacock says. “You look at it, and you think, ‘Wow, that’s really special.’”

Burton was different, maybe special. Peacock didn’t want to let that potential go to waste. He had to push him. He kept him honest, on and off the field.

“He would actually make an example out of it to the team if I did anything wrong,” Burton says. “I always respected that.”

Peacock also wanted to see what exactly it was he had in this moldable mind, this obedient, well-intentioned 15-year-old willing to run through an opposing defense with the tongues of his cleats flopping in the breeze for his head coach if it meant Peacock wouldn’t have to burn a timeout.

In the Indians’ win over Manatee High during Burton’s sophomore season, Peacock intentionally overworked Burton to see how he would respond.

Leading by a touchdown in the second half, Burton came up to his head coach on the sideline after a called run play and told him he was starting to cramp up. He asked to come out of the game, but Venice was so thin in the lower ranks that they didn’t have a backup quarterback behind Burton.

So Peacock told him no.

“You can cramp up all you want,” Peacock told Burton. “You can’t come out of the game.”

On the very next play, Peacock called another designed run for Burton, who took the ball and smashed ahead for a few yards. Venice went on to win by two touchdowns.

“He probably didn’t know at the time why I was doing some of that stuff,” Peacock says years later, “but hopefully some of that stuff pays off for him now.”

It seems like it has. Burton earned the respect of Eagles head coach Chip Kelly for his tireless work on the team’s special teams unit in 2014, which was one of the most prolific special teams units in recent NFL history.

And now, with Brent Celek in the twilight of his career, there could be an opportunity for Burton to take on an expanded role in the not-too-distant future.

“We’re trying to figure out exactly how [Burton] can fit into being one of our weapons,” Kelly said this summer, “because he’s a really good offensive player.”

***

IN AUGUST, AS the Eagles’ preseason began and Peacock’s new team rolled in to preseason workouts, the Venice head coach texted Burton and asked him to send some of his NFL tape over to show the high schoolers.

“I said, ‘Trey, I need you to give me a clip.’ Because when I watch him, he’s just giving great effort in the games,” Peacock says.

Burton asked Peacock what kind of tape he wanted.

Peacock told him nothing special. No runs from his rookie year. Just hard work in the trenches.

“I said, ‘See if you can get me some cut-ups of just you, so I can show the team. I just want to show the effort that you do throughout the play,’” Peacock says.

Burton’s name holds a special weight in the locker room and film room of Venice High’s football team, even six years after he played his final snap for the green-and-white Indians. He’s the most revered football alumnus in the school’s 65-year history, a pied piper for Peacock to parade when he needs his young men to fall in line during a rowdy practice.

Last fall, Burton returned to Venice to watch his alma mater take on Largo in a key district matchup. Venice’s starting quarterback quarterback, Bryce Carpenter, wore No. 22, the number he had worn playing Pop Warner football as a kid, all the way through earning the starting gig on John Peacock’s squad. He wore it as a tribute to Burton, his favorite football player.

In the midst of a season in which he would pass for 975 yards and five touchdowns, and run for 643 yards and five more scores, Carpenter struggled in front of his childhood hero. He completed four of nine passes for 32 yards and threw an interception, and Venice barely pulled out a 5-3 victory thanks to a fourth-quarter safety.

But Carpenter and the Indians finished the year 11-2, another high point for Peacock and Venice, whose resurgence began when Burton took over under center.

Now a mainstay on an NFL roster, Burton consistently remains in touch with the football program he helped transform.

This past summer, along with former Venice teammate and current Pittsburgh Steeler Dri Archer, Burton returned to his hometown and put together a day-long football clinic and camp for local kids.

“That was awesome,” Peacock said. “That was probably one of the neatest events we’ve ever done here.”

It was free for all involved, a little thank you from Burton to the community that gave him everything he has. Over 200 kids showed up to learn from their Venice heroes.

That’s why Peacock wanted that tape from Burton in August.

Peacock may be their coach, but Burton is who Venice’s rising football stars idolize. They lined their walls with Burton pictures when he played for Urban Meyer at Florida, and he’s who drives them to reach for the NFL now.

“If I can say his name and say, ‘Hey, this is Trey, this is what he’s doing, this is why he’s at where he’s at, and this is how you play football,’ those kids are glued in,” Peacock says. “They’re sold on that.”

***

AS BURTON MADE his way through his sophomore year at Venice, his grandmother gave him a book she wanted him to read.

Years later, he can’t remember the title of the book, but it was about being a fatherless child.

On the very last page of the book, the final sentence read, “Don’t just be another statistic.”

Burton says he reads plenty, but never remembers specific sentences. Just that one. It stuck with him.

“It had all the numbers in the book, about how something like 85 percent of the people in jail come from fatherless homes,” Burton says, “and it had the percentage of guys committing crimes who are from fatherless homes. It had this whole breakdown of how the odds are against you, tremendously. The odds are against you if you have two parents, really. But if you’ve got one parent, the odds are just raised so much more.”

The final sentence became Burton’s calling card, and Peacock was there to make sure Burton stuck to it.

Four months out from the beginning of his senior season with Peacock and the Indians, Burton was playing in Venice’s spring football game when he broke his ankle.

Burton didn’t know he’d broken it until three weeks later, when summer workouts began and he tried to run full-speed on the broken bone.

He had surgery later that week.

He didn’t tell many of his teammates or other friends much about it; only Peacock, Burton’s mother, and his closest companions knew the severity of the injury.

But each day over the next few months, Burton would wake up early in the morning and go swimming, or stretch, or practice strength and conditioning drills with Peacock, who sacrificed his mornings to make sure Burton was back in time for the first game of the season, which was being broadcast on ESPN.

Venice lost to Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va., 27-13, but Burton was in fine form. He accounted for 370 yards, including 83 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

That summer, unwilling to accept a broken ankle, unprepared to let life’s latest zig-zag get the best of him, Burton fought, just as he had for three years under Peacock’s tutelage.

It was what drew Peacock to Burton when he was a freshman, and what still impresses him to this day.

“I don’t know if he’s the most talented person on the Eagles’ team, or anything like that,” Peacock says of his former star, “but I do know he’s got to be one of the best, hardest-working people. There’s no doubt about it.”

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