Urban Meyer heard the name, and Ohio State’s head coach perked up instantly, then flashed a wide smile.
“I could talk about him all day,” Meyer said in response to a reporter’s question pertaining to Buckeyes senior linebacker Joe Burger.
He didn’t go on forever, but you got the sense Meyer could do exactly that for one of Ohio State’s seven captains this season.
Burger is a bit different than those other six, however. For one, he’s the only captain on the team who isn’t a returning starter. J.T. Barrett, Pat Elflein, Raekwon McMillan, Gareon Conley, Tyquan Lewis and Billy Price all started for the Buckeyes last season and were unquestionably going to be counted on in 2016; Burger was credited with exactly one tackle last year.
Secondly, the six captains other than Burger were all high-profile recruits who came to Ohio State expected to contribute right away. Burger was not, and spent his first four seasons as a walk-on before Meyer put him on scholarship this summer for his final year with the Buckeyes.
“It’s really cool,” Burger said of earning his scholarship. “Me and Craig [Fada], we were just working out and coach Meyer called us and we met with [strength coach Mickey Marotti] and it was just, ‘Hey, the way we have it right now we have two spots and we’re excited to give you guys full scholarships.’
“I’m very humbled and very honored to be chosen by my teammates. You always try to impress the coaching staff, but the No. 1 thing is always how your peers think of you. The fact they voted me captain, that’s extremely humbling and I’m forever grateful for them.”– Joe Burger
“We tried to keep it in and tried not to get too much emotion, just act like it’s business as usual but it is a really big deal when you call your family and stuff.”
Burger chose for it to be this way, though. He chose to walk on at Ohio State and turned down full-ride scholarship offers from several Mid-American Conference schools so he could play for the Buckeyes. Hailing from La Salle High School in Cincinnati, a rising program in the state of Ohio, Burger had offers from Bowling Green, Buffalo and Miami [Ohio], according to his 247Sports recruiting profile.
He redshirted as a freshman in 2012 but has been a key contributor on special teams for the last three seasons. That figures to be Burger’s role again in 2016 — a backup linebacker and contributor on multiple special teams units.
That’s precisely why Burger being voted a captain by teammates is so unique; rarely does a backup former walk-on find himself in this type of situation. But it certainly speaks volumes to the amount of respect he has inside Ohio State’s locker room.
“I learned a lot from Joe Burger myself as a linebacker,” McMillan said recently. “The leadership traits that he has on and off the field, I learned a lot.”
Added Lewis: “He’s full of energy and he goes harder than almost anyone I know. So for him to get captain, he does deserve it. He worked for it, he worked really hard. He’s a big asset to this team.”
That work ethic is something that’s been instilled in Burger for as long as he can remember. That’s why he smiled when asked if there was any pressure on him to earn a scholarship when he opted to come to Ohio State rather than take a full-ride someplace else.
“I’m not going to lie, I felt a lot of pressure because my dad walked on at Notre Dame and earned a scholarship. My oldest brother walked on at Notre Dame and earned a scholarship. ... And then two of my middle brothers both walked on at Xavier in golf,” Burger said. “I felt a lot of pressure going into my last year like, ‘Man, if I don’t do this I’m letting my family down.’”
It’s especially difficult at a place like Ohio State for a walk-on to earn a scholarship, too. With the way Meyer and his staff are recruiting, roster spots aren’t exactly there for the taking. Burger even admitted “there is a little bit of luck involved” with how things worked out.
But make no mistake about it, he earned this. And he’s also earned the respect of his teammates along the way.
Burger is unlike Barrett, McMillan, Elflein, Price, Lewis and Conley in a lot of ways. But he’s forever similar in one: a captain of the Ohio State football team.
“I’m very humbled and very honored to be chosen by my teammates,” Burger said. “You always try to impress the coaching staff, but the No. 1 thing is always how your peers think of you. The fact they voted me captain, that’s extremely humbling and I’m forever grateful for them.”