Talk to Caledonia High School football coach Michael Kelly about senior Daniel Burleson, and the word that pops up the most is “persistence.”
Persistence in working hard. Persistence in trying to become successful. Persistence in bouncing back from injuries.
It is that persistence — “following through” as Burleson puts it — that brought the outside linebacker/wide receiver from a freshman slow to come out of his shell to an NCAA Division III college football player, as he announced on Wednesday his decision to play football and run track at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
“I chose Huntingdon because they were the only college looking at me at the time,” Burleson said. “They went to football camps I went to and everything, plus it’s a Christian college … I want to minor in biblical studies and religion and major in business.”
Huntingdon is a member of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Kelly said that while some of Burleson’s talent was evident early, it took time for him to become the complete package.
“He was a late-bloomer, like a lot of our seniors,” said Kelly, whose senior class won as many games this season (11) as it had during its first three seasons, including the first three playoff wins in school history.
“He had a lot of things go against him. They moved here from the coast, and he wasn’t necessarily shy, but he wouldn’t come out of his shell. Then we had a couple of JV games once he came back from hurting his wrist, and we kind of just saw a light turn on with him. He was trying to come out of that shell a little bit, and he did.”
It wasn’t until the past year that Burleson said he seriously considered playing at the next level.
“What’s going to help me be successful is to mentally prepare myself for that level of ball, try the best I can instead of overthinking what I’m doing, and just follow through with everything,” he said.
Kelly is confident Burleson will do just that.
“Daniel’s always had a great work ethic,” said the coach, who will be entering his fifth season with the Cavaliers in August. “He’s had some bad injuries in his career, but there’s never been a question about his work ethic. I feel like his persistence to be successful will pay off at the next level.”
Mike Turk certainly hopes so. Huntingdon’s coach has been with the Hawks since their second season of football in 2004, compiling a 110-51 record. The Hawks went 8-3 a year ago, including 8-0 in the USA South Athletic Conference, and reached the NCAA Division III playoffs.
“I know Coach Turk runs a good program over there, and he’s been there for a while,” Kelly said. “The stability, I really think, is crucial for Daniel. He knows he can get comfortable, and that will pay dividends for him.”
Burleson will be joining a team moving into a new conference, as eight USA South schools, including Huntingdon, are breaking away to form the Collegiate Conference of the South. He will be playing outside linebacker for the Hawks, although he said it was too early to tell what his role will be during his first season.
“I feel like I’ll get a pretty good amount of playing time there,” Burelson said.
But if football isn’t enough for him, Burleson also plans to continue with track and field at Huntingdon. He joined the Caledonia track team as a junior and has run the 4 x 800 and the one-mile.
“Growing up I always ran 5Ks and stuff,” Burleson said. “I ran a half-marathon last year, the St. Jude one. I got talked into it by my coaches; it was either track or powerlifting, and I chose track because I love running.
“He’s always had the ability to run,” Kelly said. “He does a good job running the mile for our track team, so I know he’ll be successful at that as well.”
Huntingdon track and cross country coach Ed Wright thinks so as well, so much so he tried to get even more out of his newest recruit.
“He’s trying to convince me to run cross country, too,” Burleson said of Wright, noting cross country is run during football season. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stick with football and track.”
And Kelly thinks the Hawks’ football program is a great fit for him.
“They’ve had continuity with the staff, which is always good,” he said. “When you send your kids to a football program, you want to know they’re going to be taking care of them.”