On the morning of December 4, Freddie Burden joined a phone call with his mother Velma and his brother Willie Jr. It was the one-year anniversary of the death of Burden’s father Willie Sr., who died a year ago at the age of 64 awaiting a heart transplant. Velma was on the phone from Statesboro; Willie Jr. was calling from Washington, D.C., where he is a first-year law student at Catholic University. Freddie, Georgia Tech’s venerable center, was at his apartment near campus.
The phone call lasted between 30 and 45 minutes, Burden recalled. Together, they shed tears, spoke prayers and felt peace.
“It was comforting,” Burden said. “We just kind of collected our thoughts and everything and just still remain at peace with it.”
A chapter will close in Burden’s life Dec. 31 when the Yellow Jackets play Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. It will be the final game of Burden’s career and the conclusion of a year that has been an uplifting rejoinder to a most painful 2015.
“I’m extremely happy for him,” coach Paul Johnson said.
In May, Burden earned his degree in business management and began his pursuit of a master’s in building construction in the fall. He completed his third season as a starter and for the first time earned All-ACC honors from both coaches and media. He played 11 of 12 games and, compared to the previous two seasons, made it through with little damage to his body.
Perhaps most satisfyingly, after Tech’s disastrous 3-9 season in 2015, he played a significant role in helping the Jackets correct their course.
Behind his blocking and leadership of a young offensive line, Tech re-established its run-game authority, improving week to week and finishing the regular season with seven consecutive games in which it averaged 5.3 yards per carry or more. In Johnson’s tenure, the previous long was five games (2011).
“It’s been a blessing,” Burden said. “I love each and every one of my teammates. They’ve been with me through the worst part and through the best part. It’s been an amazing season for me.”
Burden offered his leadership at the midway point of the season, when Tech was 3-3 after having lost three games in a row. The taste of the 2015 season was still fresh.
“We were like, we’re not going back to what we were the previous year,” Burden said. “That’s just something we talked about all summer, since last year. We’re not doing that.”
In the second half, the Jackets went 5-1. Tech ended a two-game losing streak to Duke and upset then-No. 14 Virginia Tech (Burden sat out, breaking a 35-game start streak) and Georgia (Burden threw a block on A-back Qua Searcy’s last-minute touchdown plunge). He has a piece of the Sanford Stadium hedges in his apartment.
Before the game-winning drive, Burden said, “I remember I went out there, me and Justin (Thomas) were telling all the guys, ‘Keep calm, keep your composure and we’ll win this thing.’”
A year ago, Burden was mourning the loss of his father, who spent the final 10 months of his life at Piedmont Hospital awaiting a heart transplant. Burden made near-daily trips to see him, even during the season. Grinding through a difficult semester, he was trying to get by on four or five hours of sleep and was at the same time playing with a thumb injury that required surgery after the season, not an inconsequential affliction for a center. On top of that, the Jackets tumbled from preseason ACC title contenders to the team’s worst season since 1994.
In the midst, Burden earned widespread respect for his attitude and determination in the face of such adversity. While playing an anonymous position and hardly a star, he has resonated with Tech fans.
“People admire him,” said Tech business professor Bill Todd, who taught a health-care management class Burden took that trying semester. “I know I do because of the way he managed that whole process.”
A year later, nothing can replace his father Willie, who starred at N.C. State, had a hall-of-fame career in the CFL and at the end of his life taught sports management at Georgia Southern. Burden said he thinks about him daily.
“It was rough,” he said. “It still is rough.”
Burden, though, said he feels his presence, often before games, which was the time when he called his father at the hospital for a word of encouragement.
“It’s like, I know you’re here with me, so I have no worries,” Burden said.
He will leave Tech with his degree and a trove of memories. Pregame pep talks from team chaplain Derrick Moore. Weekly meals at Zaxby’s with teammates Patrick Gamble and Rod Rook-Chungong (Burden orders the chicken finger plate with hot honey mustard). The trip to Ireland for the season-opening win over Boston College. The laughs and barbs traded in the offensive-line meeting room. His daily chats with locker neighbor Niko Anderson. The support of former teammates such as Errin Joe and Beau Hankins who walked alongside him through his valley.
Burden is rated the No. 15 prospect for centers for the upcoming draft by cbssports.com. He said he was considering accepting an invitation to the College Gridiron Showcase game in January.
“He’s got his degree and hopefully he’ll get a chance there at the next level to see if he can play, and if not, he’s going to be ready to go in the work force and be very successful,” Johnson said.
Burden said that he plans to complete his master’s in building construction and eventually pursue a career in a related field.
In his last days as a Jacket, Burden was trying to enjoy the moment and hone in on Kentucky. A chapter will close and another one will begin.
Said Burden, “Just thankful for the opportunity.”