Burnett was speaking in his family’s home in a gentler part of Pennsylvania’s capital city, perhaps a 10-minute drive from the neighborhoods he referenced, but much farther in a figurative sense. Wearing a designer track suit, he lounged on a comfortable sectional couch, across the room from his mother, LaToya Elam, who wore jeans and a green T-shirt that read “God is Dope.”
It was mid-May, about two weeks before he was to make the drive to Atlanta to report to Georgia Tech and begin his career as a Yellow Jackets wide receiver. It was a move toward opportunity and possibility, the direction he has consistently traveled.
“He wants to be great, and he knows what it takes to get there,” said Jeff Weachter, Burnett’s coach at Bishop McDevitt High in Harrisburg.
Burnett’s path to greatness has met challenges from the literal beginning. Born out of wedlock, he was delivered at 26 weeks, weighing two pounds and 4-1/2 ounces at birth. “Extremely premature” infants, as they are known, are at grave risk for health and developmental issues.
But he heads to Tech as a graduate of a rigorous private high school, an elite athlete and a young man who has almost mystified his mother and stepfather with his level-headed behavior.
“It’s weird,” said Genaro “Buster” Elam, his stepfather. “It’s, like, freaky. He’s been freaky good. Like, it’s not normal.”
That maturity helped him navigate his middle-school years, when he was enrolled at the Nativity School, an all-boys private school in Harrisburg with a mission to educate low-income children from the inner city. As a student, Burnett was focused and “carried himself like, I’m going to be something one day,” school executive director and principal Lavelle Muhammad said.
Burnett, known as “Naz” to friends and “Bub” to his family, was quiet, but with his athletic gifts and confidence, he drew classmates to him.
“He had a lot of friends, and a lot of his friends made good decisions and some of his friends made some bad decisions,” Muhammad said. “Regardless of the decisions they made around him, he always made the right decisions.”
Burnett was sympathetic to his friends, saying that, in their circumstances, “they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do.” Burnett came from a more stable home than many of his classmates, and had his mother in his ear. When he was with friends, she often came to pick him up before trouble arose.
“It’s always the innocent bystander or someone that’s trying to do right that always ends up getting hurt or ends up in the wrong situation,” Elam said.
His enrollment at the Nativity School, though, was fortuitous. Tuition was free. The school day extends from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with the intent of catching students up to grade level by the time they graduate. The classes are small. Students go to a camp in the summer.
“Like a real camp,” Burnett said. “Sleeping in cabins. It was amazing.”
Upon graduation, donors cover the high-school tuition for students to a variety of private schools. Burnett’s mother called the school “the best thing that’s ever happened to us, I would say.”
It was about the time of his graduation to Bishop McDevitt that Burnett began to take more of a liking to football after several years of playing in youth leagues, as he began to add weight to his slender build. He was motivated by the possibility of a scholarship to take the burden off his mother, who works as a logistics manager for a Department of Defense distribution center near Harrisburg and also runs her own cleaning business.
In turn, Elam was providing an example for her son.
“He needs to learn,” she said. “Nothing in life’s free. You work for what you got.”
On the field, Burnett was a starter for the state powerhouse Crusaders from the time he was a sophomore. He worked hard at his route running, said Weachter, the Bishop McDevitt coach. Burnett was physically gifted enough that he could outrun defenders without relying on route techniques, but he tried to master it because he knew it could make a difference at the college level. It has become a strength.
“What separates him is he is so smooth getting in and out of breaks,” Weachter said. “He knows when to accelerate getting in and out of a break.”
Among the things he brought from home to Atlanta: the used Mercedes-Benz sedan that his mother gave him as a gift for walking the straight and narrow (after he begged for it “for a good year or so,” she said), a taste for chicken strips from Sheetz gas stations (he said he made stops nearby home and school as many as seven times a week) and a tattoo of a dove above the words “Forever 24” in honor of a friend, Mekhi Cooke.
On Christmas Eve in 2016, when Burnett was a sophomore, Cooke was in a Harrisburg park when shots were fired. As Cooke ran for safety, he was killed when he was hit by a car that police said also was attempting to escape the gunshots. Police ruled the death accidental. Cooke was 16. The 24 on the tattoo refers to his death on the 24th of December.
The park is about two blocks from Burnett’s middle school.
“It just made me look at life different, like anything can happen,” Burnett said. “Can’t take life for granted.”
Even as an incoming college freshman, Burnett knows that lesson far better than most.
This is the first in a series of stories about members of Tech’s incoming freshman class.