The number was crazy, a ridiculous number, but when Tom Burke set out with the goal of having 20 quarterback sacks for the Wisconsin Badgers in 1998, the pride of Poplar planned on doing just that.
Burke knew the way, and that way was through hard work, so in the offseason leading up to that fall, in addition to working out with the team four days a week in Madison, Burke went fishing.
Fishing, of course, isn’t hard work, but what Burke did on his way to Mud Lake was.
“I would walk these railroad tracks to a bridge, and fish at the bridge there,” Burke said recently. “Every day I would walk past this one box train car, and my father worked on the railroad, and I knew that thing was at least 40 tons. I unlocked the brake on it, wondering if I could move it. And I started pushing it, and started moving it.
“I’d get it going, pushing as hard as I could, then run to the other side and try to stop it. I’d do that three times a week, 20 times down and 20 times back, then park it right back where it was and lock ’er back up. I did that extra bit because I always thought someone was training harder, so I did a little extra to where I thought I was doing the most.”
Burke didn’t have 20 sacks that season. He had 22.
Burke’s Big Ten record put the exclamation mark on a remarkable college career, and now the former Northwestern High School standout and NFL defensive end has been named to the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. The 2020 class induction ceremony is tentatively scheduled for September.
“This is probably the best honor, the best accolade in my football career,” said Burke, 43, who is retired and recently moved to Rice Lake, Wisconsin. “None of this would have been possible if not for all the people who prayed for me and were behind me. I’m so thankful.”
From Proctor to Poplar
Burke’s earliest years were spent in Proctor before the family moved to Poplar the summer before his sixth grade year.
Burke met some friends that summer at the Poplar River Pond and went out for football. Burke, who got as big as 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, was small back then, believe it or not.
“Coach put me in at nose tackle in sixth grade, and I remember going against an eighth grader with a mustache, and I kind of worked him over pretty good,” Burke said. “It was a good feeling.”
After practice, they waited for the activity bus to pick them up, and the kid he worked over was mad, and his buddies surrounded him and started pushing Burke around. He ended up having to walk home two miles.
“I had a decision I had to make that day, I had to go back,” Burke recalled. “When I was 7, I wanted to play in the NFL, and the only path is through playing football. I asked my dad for a weight set, and he got me one, and I went back to practice the next day, and I got a lot of respect for that, and it went on from there.”
Burke went from about 5 feet tall and 100 pounds in sixth grade to 6-3, 235 in eighth grade.
“When I was going into high school, remembering that first day of football, I went up to those kids saying, ‘Remember that day,’ ” Burke said.
Burke compared it to milk commercials, saying in a high voice, “Hey guys, don’t pick on me,” before lowering it to a bass while saying “because I’m drinking milk, and I don’t forget a thing.”
Burke said he doesn’t regret a thing. He is friends with those guys now.
“With every experience along the way, good or bad, they were all needed, for the drive and determination and belief they instilled in me,” he said.
Burke could bench press 400 pounds in high school and later benched upward of 500 pounds and more than 700 in the squat.
Burke went out for basketball through his junior year at Northwestern High School in nearby Maple and was the Tigers’ leading rebounder — “the Dennis Rodman” of the team, he says. In track and field, he was a standout in the shot and discus, where he won a state title.
But his true passion was football.
Burke was a standout guard and defensive end as Northwestern finished as state runner-up his junior year and just missed the state playoffs as a senior in 1994, when he was named Wisconsin’s co-player of the year.
“Tom had it all. He was big and fast and strong and quick. He was an animal,” said his former head coach, Andy Lind, now an assistant with the Tigers. “I could go on and on and on about Tom and what he did. He was just a football player.
“Tom is very deserving of this. We’re just super proud of him. I can’t say enough nice things about what Tom did for Northwestern.”
On to Madison
Burke already was a man among boys when he attended a Wisconsin Badgers’ football camp before his senior year. Lind happened to be a coach at the camp, something he called “a luxury.”
The camp included blue-chip prospects from across the country, and Burke, the hometown boy, stood out like Paul Bunyan.
“He was head and shoulders above everyone else down there, just because of his strength and his quickness and his speed and his size,” Lind said. “He was just a special athlete. Tom brought a whole other element with his size, speed and strength.”
Burke was pulled from camp. He was told that Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez just had knee surgery and would be there in about an hour.
“Barry came and talked to me and said we have a scholarship waiting for you if you’re interested,” Burke recalled. “Go have a great senior year. We’ll talk to you soon. That’s where it all started.”
Burke was recruited to play defensive end, and it didn’t take him long to make an impression once he arrived on campus, either.
Burke grew up on a farm just outside of Poplar. While his family didn’t work the farm, Burke grew up working for nearby farmers, baling hay, cleaning stalls and tending to animals, something he later credited to his football success, not to mention delivering appliances for Sears.
It certainly gave him a jump.
“When he arrived here, he was so much more developed than the ordinary freshman,” former Badgers left tackle Chris McIntosh told UWBadgers.com. “He had that northwoods-strong reality to him. That was undeniable.”
Burke was selected as Wisconsin’s Specials Teams Player of the Year as a true freshman in 1995. He improved to the point where he was named team MVP as a junior in 1997 when he had nine sacks, 19 tackles for loss and 86 stops, third on the team.
Still, to set a goal of 20 sacks is almost unfathomable for someone who only had 10 career sacks going into his senior year, and his defensive line coach John Palermo told him so.
Palermo didn’t want Burke to end up disappointed. He said go for the school record of 14 sacks, set by defensive end Tarek Saleh in 1996, but Burke had other ideas.
Burke finished with a Big Ten-record and nation-leading 22 sacks in just 12 games, including 31 tackles for loss for minus-151 yards as the Badgers won the Rose Bowl.
“I knew when I set that goal it was an amazing feat, but amazing feats are reachable if you follow the right path and follow the right direction, and I had it at the time,” Burke said. “I believed in myself, even if nobody did. Anybody I told that number, they were like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy.’
“And it was crazy. It is a crazy number, but nothing is unattainable if you put everything you have into it. And I did. I knew I was going to do it.”
Fellow Badgers 2020 Hall of Fame inductee Aaron Gibson, an offensive tackle Burke considers like a brother, wasn’t as surprised.
“Burke was a beast. He was just that good,” Gibson told UWBadgers.com. “He was really strong, freakishly strong. And he had this motor that never shut off. You would kind of wonder, ‘Why is he still going so hard?’ ”
Asked if Burke was a little crazy, Gibson said, “No, he was a lot crazy.”
And then the NFL
Burke had a four-year NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals, notching 4.5 sacks and 49 tackles in 36 games before injuries helped end his career. At one time he was ashamed of how his career fizzled, joking that he was “Clay Matthews before Clay Matthews,” but he no longer is. Burke has had his share of serious personal and health issues since leaving the game.
“There’s a lot more to football than just lifting weights and running, man,” Burke said. “You’ve got life, you’re an adult, you’ve got family, I was married. You know, all that stuff I knew nothing about (he laughed). I learned the lessons the hard way, and I’m thankful for that.”
Burke has dealt with blackouts and a spinal injury, heart issues, numbness in his legs and arms and bad knees.
“I’ve had surgeries like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
Burke was part of the group of former NFL players who sued the league over its handling of concussions. And the NFL, being what it is — “Not For Long” — when a player like Burke was out there seeing double after a collision, he wasn’t telling anybody because there was a guy right behind him who wanted his job.
That takes a toll.
“Your body is controlled by the central nervous system, and mine’s all messed up,” Burke said. “It is what it is. I’d do it all over again. It just would have been nice to have more knowledge of the long-term effects. It’s an emotional roller coaster sometimes.”
While Burke hasn’t been able to run in 10 years, he has been trying to do push-ups and work with dumbbells, “because if I don’t, I’m going to be 350 pounds,” he said. Burke is in a better place now, but he said it is still a mental and physical challenge. He’s not there yet.
“I used to be Superman, and now I’m not, physically,” he said. “It put me in a real bad place. It was a rough go, but I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I know that it does.
“I got down on my knees and I prayed. I got my faith back and was rescued, but it’s not over. There’s a whole life ahead of me, and I’m not going to miss it. I’m not going to miss it for the world.”