It almost seems as if Keith Burns of the Denver Broncos has been playing in the NFL forever. Well, the fact is, by NFL standards where a players' average playing career is about four years, he practically has been.
Burns, a 1990 T.C. Williams graduate, is embarking on his 13th NFL season this fall. A 6-foot-2 inch, 235-pound linebacker and special teams standout who was selected by Denver in the seventh round of the 1994 NFL draft, Burns' overall work ethic and talent have helped him put together such a long and fruitful career.
But perhaps the biggest key to Burns' long-term success as an NFL player is his genuine humility. His mindset, he said, is to "always be humble when you succeed because [success] may come a lot or not often."
Burns, who has played on two winning Super Bowl teams with the Broncos, has also had stints with both the Chicago Bears (1999) and Buccaneers (2004). This upcoming season will be his 11th with Denver and third stint (1994-98, 2000-03, 2005-present) with the highly successful organization. In his Denver career, Burns, perhaps the Broncos' best special teams player ever, has played in 182 games, including 12 playoff games. In Denver's AFC title game versus the Steelers last year, he made two special teams tackles in his team's home game loss. All together last season, he was credited with making 17 special teams stops. In the Broncos' final regular season game at San Diego, Burns received a rare start at middle linebacker.
His biggest on-field value to the teams he has played for has been his ability to succeed on special teams, where he has accumulated 222 career tackles, six forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries. No wonder a description of Burns on an NFL website characterizes him as "one of the NFL's most accomplished special teams players."
In seven of his 10 years with Denver, Burns has been the team leader in special teams tackles. Last year, he was the Broncos' special teams captain.
"It's really tough playing [special teams]," said Burns a few weeks prior to the start of training camp. "You have to play every play like it's your last play."
THE HIGHLIGHTS OF BURNS'S NFL career have been the two winning Super Bowl teams he was a part of, the most recent coming on Jan. 31, 1999 when Denver beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII at Miami's Pro Player Stadium. A year earlier, Burns played in the Broncos' Super Bowl XXXII win over the Green Bay Packers in San Diego. In that game, he returned a kickoff 16 yards and saw some action at linebacker.
During the offseason following the Super Bowl win over Green Bay, Burns, during an Alexandria City Council legislative meeting, was honored with a Presentation of Proclamation and Key to the City in recognition of his days as a T.C. Williams football star and his NFL accomplishments. Alexandria Mayor Kerry Donly made the presentation. Throughout that offseason, he shared the Super Bowl win he was a part of with Alexandria.
"The Denver Broncos didn't just win a Super Bowl, but the City of Alexandria did too," he said.
Burns is only the fourth former Northern Virginia high school football player to be a part of two Super Bowl winning teams. Reggie Harrison (Steelers) and Jake Scott (Dolphins), both from Washington-Lee High in Arlington, both earned a pair of rings, as did Eric Dorsey (Giants), a former McLean High player.
"It's like a childhood dream," said Burns, of playing on the grandest sports stage — the Super Bowl — in the United States. "I've seen a lot of Super Bowls on TV and to be able to play [in that game] is really emotional and brings tears to your eyes. And to win it is even more special."
When the Broncos won their two Super Bowls in 1997 and '98, the main story line was John Elway, the Broncos' quarterback who in recent years went into the Hall of Fame. Burns said Elway was a phenomenal leader and field general.
"He was more than just a Hall of Famer to me," said Burns. "I saw him work as hard as anyone in the offseason. His determination to always want to win and leave it out on the field [stood out]."
Burns said he has played for outstanding coaches throughout his football career, such as Mike Shanahan with Denver and Glenn Furman at T.C. Williams.
"I remember [coach Furman] like yesterday," said Burns. "He knew how to get it done and translate [success] from the practice field to a game. Hands down, Furman was probably the best coach I've been around as far as attention to details. Mike is one of those coaches who let's a man be a man and may not put restraints on you, but he expects perfection. He lets you be yourself."
BURNS, BORN IN MAY of 1972 in Greeleyville, S.C., grew up in Alexandria. He was the youngest child of single parent Tracy Burns' four children. He always acknowledges the positive impact his youth coaches had on him while growing up. During his youth football playing days in the city, he played under such coaches as Richard Howell (Cora Kelly, 1985), Chick Armstrong (110 pound team), and Henry Stancil (Hammond).
"It's very important thinking where everything started for me," said Burns. "If it wasn't for the Alexandria city recreation department, I might not be [in the NFL] today."
At T.C. Williams, Burns starred in both football and basketball. In football, he played under the legendary Furman. As a sophomore player in 1987, Burns scored the Titans' only touchdown in a 10-6 T.C. win over Hampton High School in the state AAA Div. 6 championship game. He also forced a fumble from his defensive position at linebacker that day to set up a T.C. field goal. T.C., the state champ, finished that season 14-0 and was ranked as the top team in the Washington area along with being ranked the seventh best high school team in the nation by USA Today.
"We had a lot of senior leadership," Burns recalled of the unbeaten Titans of 1987. "I was a young pup on that state team and fortunate to play varsity as a sophomore. I took the lead from a lot of the seniors.
"Winning the state championship would have to be the highlight of my [high school] career," said Burns. "I was a young guy and scored the only touchdown in [us] winning the state championship game."
Burns was a two-way player in high school, excelling as a running back on offense and a linebacker on defense. He earned numerous all star honors as a senior (1989 season), including being named the Alexandria Sportsman's Club Football Player of the Year and the Northern Region Defensive Player of the Year as well as all-met. Burns, a three-year varsity football starter, lettered three years in football, two years in basketball, and one year in baseball at T.C.
"Keith wasn't always the most talented player," said Furman. "He had to work at it to become a great player. His work ethic, even then, was beyond reproach. He practiced hard every day. He's one of the best practice players I ever had. He just loved to be out there playing. He was a very unassuming player, appreciative of every opportunity you gave him. He's one of the best I've ever had."
Furman recalled Burns, in training camp of his sophomore season, impressing him by his hard play and ability to handle himself physically against older and bigger players during hitting drills.
"His work ethic, that's why he's still in the pros," said Furman. "He was very, very unselfish and didn't look for individual awards."
AT T.C., Burns was a force at linebacker.
"As a linebacker he'd go sideline to sideline and dominated the field," said longtime Annandale coach Dick Adams. "He was a great football player. He loved contact and played a reckless abandon [style] and made plays."
"He was a big guy and roamed all over the field and hit hard. He was a very strong player," added longtime T.C. Williams sports observer and former Titan player Greg Paspatis.
Burns, in his senior season, once scored three touchdowns — all from different positions (tightend, running back, QB) — in a game against Woodson.
Of Burns' prowess in basketball, former Woodson coach Red Jenkins said, "Keith Burns was one tough character, tough competitor, and tough defender. And he was a good guy."
Burns, who as a collegiate football player earned All-American recognition at Oklahoma State, recalled the atmosphere at T.C. games when he was a Titan.
"I remember the crowds T.C. Williams football games used to bring in. The atmosphere and tradition when T.C. Williams took the field was special," he said.
Burns, who was named to the Connection Newspapers All-Time Dream Team back in 1992 as a First Team linebacker, had his Titan jersey No. 48 retired at T.C. Williams during his rookie season with the Broncos in 1994. He is one of four Titan football players to have had his jersey retired — the others being Gerry Bertier (No. 42), Harold Cook (No. 81), and Carl Carr (No. 58).
In 1999, the Alexandria Sportsman's Club celebrated a tribute to `Alexandria's 100 Greatest Athletes.' In the commemorative program which listed the athletes along with brief descriptions of each, it was noted that Burns "was the greatest pro football player from Alexandria."
Burns and wife Audra reside in Gainesville, Va. with their three children, Danielle (11), Rachel (9), and Keith Jr. (5).
Keith Burns is 19 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.