If Joe Burger were interested in living out someone else’s story, he probably would be on his way to Notre Dame.
Burger has countlessly heard the famed story of Rudy Ruettiger’s path at Notre Dame and saw his father and brother walk on to the Fighting Irish football team before eventually earning scholarships.
He respects the work those men did to achieve such a remarkable feat, especially at one of the most prestigious college football programs in the country. Burger, however, was always more concerned about the future he’ll write for himself as a preferred walk-on at Ohio State.
“Obviously Notre Dame has a great tradition in my family and I have always had strong feelings for that program,” said Burger, who will start his journey with the Buckeyes in June. “But for me it was about kind of making my own mark.”
The story Ruettiger made famous is what typically embodies a person’s thought process when thinking about the path of a walk-on. A physically inferior athlete, Ruettiger was a glorified punching bag during Fighting Irish practices before eventually earning the respect of his teammates and coaches.
At the end of his career – depicted in the 1993 movie “Rudy” – Ruettiger earned playing time late in the final game of his career against Georgia Tech. On the final play of his collegiate career, Ruettiger recorded a sack.
A wonderful story, no doubt, but Burger isn’t quite the same. A 6-2, 228-pound outside linebacker prospect out of Cincinnati La Salle, Burger earned scholarship offers from Cincinnati and a handful of Mid-American Conference schools before ultimately choosing to attend Ohio State as a preferred walk-on.
“Ohio State’s not getting a scrub,” La Salle head coach Tom Grippa told BSB. “This isn’t a Rudy-like player. They’re getting a throwback player that from tackle box to tackle box is as good as there is in the state of Ohio in high school football. He’s a player. I think he’ll start in a couple of years.”
That was quite a prediction from Grippa, but it can be done. Remember, former walk-on Antonio Smith started all 12 games of his senior season at Ohio State in 2007, was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award and a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection that year and played in the BCS National Championship Game.
The parallels are there. Smith, a Columbus native, was wanted by several MAC schools out of high school but chose to attempt to walk on at Ohio State while studying to become an engineer – the same major Burger will pursue.
Burger, who carries a 3.92 grade point average, is very academically oriented. He would have chosen Ohio State regardless of football to pursue engineering – his father wanted academics to come first – but football is the other half of the equation.
Regardless of what has become the stereotype for walk-ons, Burger isn’t coming to Columbus to be a glorified towel boy for four years. He’s coming to Ohio State to complete his education and play a little football in the process.
“Everybody knows the Rudy story and tells me that I can go up there and earn a scholarship,” Burger said. “People can talk all they want, but it is about me going up there and performing. It doesn’t do any good to talk about it – I just have to go up there and do it.”
Burger was fully aware of what he was doing when he turned down scholarships from other programs. Walk-ons, though respected members of the team, don’t typically get the first opportunity to find the field.
That wasn’t necessarily what’s important to Burger, though. His dream since he was a kid was to play in the Big Ten. He waited during his recruiting process for a school in the conference to offer him a scholarship, but that day never came.
“I understand that I am going to start off at the bottom of the barrel at Ohio State and I have accepted that,” Burger said. “But I am going there with a goal to be a scholarship player, and I am going to do everything I can to achieve that and make the team better in the process.
“I am going to go up there, work hard and find any way I can to contribute, whether it is on special teams or in practice. But my goal is to one day be a starter.”
Perhaps being a scholarship athlete would have been more important if he hadn’t seen what his family members accomplished at Notre Dame. His father, Bob, who graduated in 1981, played for the Fighting Irish 1977 national championship team. Meanwhile, Joe’s older brother, Bobby, who graduated in 2011, started at fullback for Notre Dame under Charlie Weis.
During the process of Joe closing in on Ohio State, his father made sure to ask Meyer the important questions about how walk-ons are treated. Meyer, a former walk-on at Cincinnati in 1984, evidently answered those questions correctly.
“The important thing for us was to feel that wherever he chose to go as a walk-on, that he would be given an opportunity,” Bob told BSB. “That’s as much as anyone can ask – for an opportunity. That’s something that Joe recognizes.”
The younger Burger hasn’t yet met anyone on the team and isn’t sure what challenges he’ll face once getting on campus. Competing against such players as Curtis Grant – a former five-star recruit regarded as one of the best high school linebackers in the nation in 2010 – Burger has taken the polar-opposite path.
But what he knows is that he’ll compete. Since Meyer took the job more than four months ago, he’s spoken nonstop about competing in practice and wanting to win every second of every practice. In that type of setting, Grippa is confident Burger will excel.
“Joe competes like crazy,” Grippa told BSB. “He wanted to win every drill and every sprint – and he did. He always wants to win. He wants to be the best. He’s a winner and the Ohio State coaches will see that right away. He’s not the typical walk-on.”
Perhaps Burger already passed the first step – he didn’t shy away from the challenge. He genuinely believes he’ll have the opportunity to make a difference for Ohio State, even if it isn’t at first.
As his father has shared with him numerous times, he isn’t going to be handed anything. If he wants to see the field, he’ll have to beat out the other players on Ohio State’s athletically plentiful roster. Burger doesn’t care. He’s just ready to start the journey.
“The thing I wanted to teach my kids is not to be afraid of taking on a challenge,” Bob said. “If they have a dream or a goal or something they want to go after, then go after it and put your heart and soul into it.
“It may not happen, but if it doesn’t happen it isn’t because you didn’t put your heart into it or full effort into it. I think that’s Joe’s perspective about Ohio State.”
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