“The rules change every year so they’re always different, but I do remember — and I forget just what year it was — we had a morning workout and then we went upstairs to eat,” Joe Burger said.
“All we could eat — those of us that were walk-ons — was oatmeal or cereal or stuff. We weren’t allowed to have eggs or bacon or an official meal, just snacks.”
The OSU linebacker shrugged, then managed a faint smile: “That got to me a little bit, but it kept that chip on your shoulder and reminded you where you came from and where you were. As a walk-on you always have to be strong to get to the next level.”
Burger admitted it was a big adjustment for him when he got to Columbus from LaSalle High School in Cincinnati, where, after his senior season, he received the That’s My Boy Award presented by the National Football Federation and the Southwest Ohio Football Coaches Association.
“I had been first team All-Ohio and then I came here and I think I was fourth or fifth at the linebacker position on the depth chart and 13th out of 13 (linebackers) in the (meeting) room,” he said Monday afternoon as he sat in the indoor practice facility at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “So, oh yeah, it was a huge adjustment.”
Burger had had several scholarship offers from smaller programs — including Bowling Green against which the Buckeyes will open their 2016 season Saturday at noon at Ohio Stadium — but he followed the advice of his dad, Bob Burger.
“My dad always told me: ‘You go where you truly want to go,’ ” Burger said. “He said to chase your dreams and my dream always had been at the highest level.”
Bob had done the same thing and walked on at Notre Dame. Joe’s older brother Bobby had walked onto the Irish, too. as did two uncles.
So why didn’t Joe follow the rest of the family and seek Golden Dome glory?
“My grandpa is asking the same thing,” he laughed.
“But…aaah…I kinda wanted to do my own thing. I don’t mean that in a selfish way, but if I went to Notre Dame, I’m my dad’s son. I’m my brother’s brother.
“I came to Ohio State so I’m just Joe Burger.
“I have a full opportunity to make a name for myself. That was kind of my goal coming here. I wanted to build my own legacy. And I hoped that would mean something one day.”
And these days it certainly does.
Last January, after redshirting one season and then playing three years of mostly special teams, the 6-foot-2, 236 pound linebacker was finally awarded a scholarship to Ohio State.
Then, just four days ago, Burger was named one of the Buckeyes’ seven captains for the coming season.
And this year he and teammate Craig Fada could become two of the only walk-ons in modern Buckeye history to letter four years in a row.
In December, Burger will earn his degree in industrial and systems engineering. He’s a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, a four-time OSU Scholar Athlete and later this week the school will nominate him for the prestigious National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete Award.
At his press conference Monday, OSU coach Urban Meyer raved about Burger:
“I could talk about him all day. He’s as good of a guy as you get. … I think he should be a college football coach. I told him that. Either that or medical school or business, he’ll be fine wherever he chooses.”
The players are just as high on Burger. Even though he has never started and rarely plays beyond special teams, they were the ones who voted him captain.
“I’m very humbled, very honored to be chosen by my teammates,” he said. “You always try to impress the coaching staff, but the No. 1 thing is how your peers think of you. I’m forever blessed to be around such a group of people every single day.
“I think this sets a great example that you don’t have to be a superstar on the field in order to be a leader.”
The fifth-year senior said that while he “might not be one of the most physically gifted players” and that he hasn’t “had that big a role on Saturdays,” he’s always “tried to find other ways to affect the team.”
He said he strives to find ways to get the “trust” of the younger guys and teach them, be it in the weight room, preparing for games or just how to be the best teammates they can be.
He said his family provided the blueprint for him to excel as a walk-on:
“My dad told me you gotta bring your lunch pail and go to work every single day. And you’ve got to remember people like being around people who are genuinely happy. When I walk in here I try to have a smile on my face if its 5 a.m … or 8p.m.”
“He said when things get tough you “have to be able to take a step back and have some perspective:
“You have to say, ‘Hey, I’m at Ohio State. I’m at the best program in America. I’m playing in my home state and I’m trying to make my family proud.”
That last tenet, though, came with some pressure, he admitted:
“I’m not gonna lie. I felt a lot of pressure last year. My dad walked on at Notre Dame and got a scholarship. So did my oldest brother and my two middle brothers both walked on at Xavier in golf and they earned scholarships.
“I was like, ‘Man, if I don’t do this I’m really letting the family down.’ So it was a big relief when I finally got put on scholarship, too.
“The thing I have to remember, though, is that getting a scholarship doesn’t change who I am or how I show up every day. The same with being a captain. I won’t be a very good one if I let it change me.”
And yet, there have been changes in his life.
“For breakfast today?” he admitted with a smile. “I had eggs.”