By Dedra Cordle
When Grove City High School Principal Michael Starner checked the messages that were left on his voicemail during winter break, he was a bit shocked to hear a message from a representative with the National Football League.
Listening carefully, he discovered that the league had started an initiative called the Super Bowl High School Honor Roll to celebrate schools across the country that have positively impacted the game and Grove City was one of those who were to be honored.
After gathering himself, he called the representative back and they put him in touch with Gary Burley, a 1971 graduate and a former defensive lineman who played for the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.
During their initial correspondence, Starner questioned how the Golden Football that was to be given to the school would make its way to the city. For Burley, who currently resides in Alabama, the answer was obvious.
“He was pretty adamant about presenting it in person,” said Starner.
While they tried to find the perfect date for Burley to fly into town, the two began talking about their lives and their passion for helping children. Needless to say, but a new friendship was formed.
Knowing some of what Burley and his wife, Bobbie Knight, have experienced throughout their lives, Starner asked if they would be willing to speak to the school’s recently formed Diversity Club when they were in town. They said they would be thrilled to do so.
On Feb. 12, hours before he was to present the Golden Football during half-time at the Grove City/Pickerington North basketball game, he and Knight sat down with 14 students all eager to hear from a former Grove City alum who got to play in the NFL.
After a brief introduction, he challenged them to market themselves in two minutes or less. Then he wanted to know their career plans for the future. Though surprised by the verbal pop quizzes, the students were able to rise to the occasion.
When he was their age, Burley told the club, he didn’t have much of a clue as to what he wanted to make of his life. He knew he excelled at sports, but he didn’t think he would be given the chance to play at the collegiate level since no schools were actively recruiting him.
But that uncertainty cleared a bit during his senior year when he met Ohio State greats Jack Tatum and John Hicks.
“They sort of adopted me,” he said.
They introduced him to professors, put him in touch with other players and coaches throughout the collegiate landscape, told him to work on his academics and encouraged him to make a plan for his life.
After rededicating himself to his studies on and off the field, Burley was offered a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh where he was named an All-American. In 1975, the defensive lineman was drafted to the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round. He even played during their appearance in Super Bowl XVI, which they lost to a Joe Montana led San Francisco 49ers.
In 1985, after one year with the Atlanta Falcons, he retired from the league.
When told by student Jeremy Ford that his goal was to try to reach the professional level in football, Burley told him to go after his dream, but said he must have a back-up plan in place.
“You can play until your knees burst like mine are right now,” he said, “but always, always, have a back-up plan for your life.”
With football out of the picture, Burley put his degree to use and began working in the sports, entertainment and publication business. He was the advertising manager for the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves sports publications for a period of time.
Following in the footsteps of his mentors, Burley founded the Pro Start Academy where he and former players teach young student athletes about life on and off the field.
He said that though he has accomplished much in life and he hopes his story and advice can be something of an inspiration to the students, he said no one inspires him more now than his wife, Bobbie Knight.
As a child growing up in racially segregated Alabama, Knight said her youth was shaped by prejudice and violence.
“I was a young girl when the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church took place and my childhood was tainted by it.”
She said it was not much better when she reached high school.
“We didn’t want to be there, and they didn’t want us there.”
To help quell tensions, her school formed a race relations committee and she was asked to join.
“That was the first time I was in a leadership role and I loved it,” she told the students. “I had the opportunity to help influence other people and we were able to talk openly about our feelings and our issues.”
Now getting ready to retire from the Birmingham Division of Alabama Power where she held the position of vice president, Knight encouraged the students to stay focused on their own lives and not let the words or actions of others keep them down.
Burley seconded that advice.
“Just be the best person you can be,” he said.
Starner said while he was thankful for the honor given to the school by the NFL during their commemoration of 50 years of the Super Bowl, he said he was more thankful that the students in the diversity club got to meet and hear from inspirational figures like Burley and Knight.