ATHENS — Keener Burke is looking forward to playing in his Super Bowl.
The Concord University offensive lineman doesn’t harbor thoughts of competing in the NFL’s championship game, but Saturday’s season finale for the Mountain Lions in Athens is his last game, and therefore, his ultimate outing.
As usual, his parents, Scott and Suzy Burke, are expected to be cheering him on.
His father Scott graduated from Gate City (Va.) High School in 1979 and was a Concord lineman during a span of the college’s football glory days in the early 1980s. Scott went on to serve, temporarily, as an assistant football coach, then began a long career in the federal court system, from which he retired in 2016.
“My mom and dad are great people,” Keener Burke said. “They both instilled a lot of virtues in me. My dad played college football, so he knew a lot about the recruiting game … and he knew a lot about playing the offensive line, in particular.”
“He prepared me not only for playing, but for being a student in college. Then, after I decided to come here, he prepared me to be a Mountain Lion. So I can’t thank him enough.”
Keener Burke took a redshirt year in 2016 at Concord. The next season, he was a blocker on the field goal and extra point units. Last fall, he played in five games as a utility offensive lineman, mostly at guard.
Burke said, “Coach Z (offensive coordinator Josh Zettergren) says all the time, this is his Notre Dame. This was my Notre Dame. I grew up going to games here, and being able to start a game here, it was a dream come true. It was everything I’d worked for.”
This season, his junior year in terms of eligibility, Burke started for the first half of the season until the injury bug set in.
“I hurt my shoulder against West Virginia State, and had a concussion later on (as) I was coming back,” he said. “So it’s been a rough season, as far as me personally. But a younger guy (Myles Ham) stepped in, and is playing well, so me and him are splitting time. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s doing great.”
Burke again started in last Thursday’s game at Charleston, and is tabbed as the starting center for Saturday’s game at Callaghan Stadium against Wheeling University.
Now that he is engaged to be married, and is nearing his graduation day, Burke has decided to end his football career on Saturday and will be honored on Senior Day at the stadium.
“I’ve loved it,” Burke said of his playing days. “It’s been a tough go, as far as record goes, but I’ve made some of the closest friends … people that I’ll keep in touch with forever. So it’s been nothing but a positive experience for me.”
Saturday will be “bittersweet,” he said, “because I’m done, but it’s sweet because I get one more chance to play with my brothers. So it means everything. Saturday’s my Super Bowl, so I’m excited.”
The team’s 10-man senior contingent consists of “awesome people,” he said. “They’re all hard workers. They all embody what it means to be a Mountain Lion. We all come from all different places, and that’s what makes us special. But we’re all similar in that we’re all blue-collar guys, we work hard.”
His loyalty to Concord is a big departure from his attitude during part of his high school days.
“Initially, I wanted to go anywhere but Concord,” he said. “I think it was just, like, a rebellious streak. When I was a junior, I decided I was going to play college football. I knew I was good enough to pursue that. I remember telling my folks and telling my friends ‘I’ll go anywhere but Concord.’
“But then, (when) it came down to it, Coach (Paul) Price was the right fit for me. He offered me (an athletic scholarship); it was the right fit. So that’s where I ended up coming. It was the greatest decision of my life.”
That decision was influenced by what he called “the campus family atmosphere” at Concord.
“You see people and you wave and you say hello,” he said. “I come from a small town. That’s what we did in the high school halls, and that’s what we do in town. So, coming here on a visit and seeing people that I’d never met saying, ‘Oh, hey, how are you doin’?’ Just the friendly atmosphere, that’s what makes Concord great.”
His father made sure he was aware of Concord’s football tradition.
“I remember him telling me what it’s like to be a Mountain Lion,” Keener Burke said. “You’re blue collar, you’re a tough guy. That’s what we embody here, and that’s what they embodied in the ‘80s. It’s kind of the same deal.”
The current Concord student said that having his parents up in the stands while he competes “has been everything to me.”
“To have that support, it’s been great,” he said. “From them driving me to pee-wee practices, and games, and coaching me. My dad’s been my coach in the past. They don’t miss a game, at least they try not to unless there’s an emergency. It’s been great.”
Burke plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and he’s also earned an emphasis in criminology.
“I want to be a police officer, first,” he said about his employment plans. “I want to stay in law enforcement, my whole career. I’m not really sure, after that (first job), but I’d like to be on the front lines, at least while I’m young.”
That job search may take him back home to Gate City, “or at least around there,” he said. “I live right near the state line. Kingsport, Tennessee, is a bigger place. Somewhere back home.”
Oh, yes, the wedding. Keener Burke said it will take place in “a little more than a year.” His Concord roommate and fellow offensive lineman Nathan Toney will be his best man, and he expects a whole batch of CU teammates to be in the wedding party.
His fiancée is Julie Dockery, with whom Burke went to high school in Gate City. Dockery plays volleyball for Milligan College in Tennessee. Just this week she was named an Appalachian Athletic Conference player of the week, for the second time in her senior season.
“She’s the better athlete,” Burke said modestly.