Athletes As Role Models
When I was a youngster I was a big fan of the Boston Patriots of the American Football League (AFL). I knew every player, their height, weight, even where they lived during the off-season. My first favorite was the Patriots' first ever draft choice, 5'-10", 190 lb., running back Ron Burton.
Ron grew up poor in Springfield, Ohio. His mother died during his sophomore year in high school, the same year his father left. He was fortunate that his grandmother was a gospel preacher and the clean lifestyle she encouraged became Burton's choice.
Burton learned how to prepare himself for the game of football while still in junior high, and even then, he woke up at 4 am to run 7.5 miles daily. As a senior he was an All-American, All-Ohio, Most Valuable Player, and regarded as the best high school football player in Ohio.
He received 47 scholarship offers and after being heavily recruited by first year coach, Ara Parseghian, he chose Northwestern University. After a dismal sophomore year (0-9), Northwestern beat top rated Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oklahoma, a feat that had never been accomplished, propelling Northwestern to number one in the nation.
Burton finished 10th in the Heisman his senior year, and would later be named a member of the Northwestern Hall of Fame as well as the College Football Hall of Fame.
In 1960, Burton was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL, the Rough Riders of the CFL, and the Boston Patriots of the newly formed AFL. Burton chose the Patriots where he became the first Patriot to rush for 100 yards in a game. As a triple threat (rushing, receiving, returning), Burton amassed 1,449 total yards in 1962, and was voted to the AFL All-Star team that year.
Former Patriot head coach Mike Holovack wrote in his book "Violence Every Sunday" that Burton "would have been one of the all-time greats, but he was unlucky physically. Everything happened to him." After injuries limited his play during the better part of two seasons, Burton was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs where he retired before the regular season began in 1966.
Burton's career did not end with football. After retiring from the game he became salesman for John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company where he developed into a dynamic motivational speaker.
At the time, Burton was involved with Pop Warner football and he became very friendly with another incredible motivator and former star athlete, Sharon coach Jack Cosgrove Sr., formerly of Norton and father of former Maine Black Bears' head coach, Jack Cosgrove. The rivalry between the two coaches was friendly, but competitive. When the Sharon Red Devils had their banquet in 1967, Cosgrove convinced Burton to speak at it. I was 11 years old then, but I remember it well.
I was excited that Ron Burton was the guest speaker, anticipating the night for weeks. When it finally came, I was listening to Burton's every word.
He talked about his childhood and the influence of his grandmother and later, coach Ara Parseghian, but he talked at greater length about clean living. He said that in his entire life he had "never taken a drink". I thought long and hard on that one...
On the way home that night, I looked at my dad while he drove and asked "Ron Burton never took a drink?" My dad was quick to say "That's right!" I went on with my inquiry "You mean, he only eats?" My dad laughed hysterically "No, he drinks milk, juice and water, just not alcohol."
At the time, I didn't understand why anyone would choose alcohol over milk and juice. A few years later I would better understand the message Ron Burton had delivered that evening.
Burton went on to establish the Ron Burton Training Village in 1985, nestled on 305 acres in Hubbardston, MA and serving 11-18 year old kids from all walks of life. Ninety percent receive full scholarships.
Diagnosed with bone cancer in 1999, Burton said, "I focus on my blessings. All I want to do now is serve. I am just a servant."
In 2003, Burton succumbed to cancer. His work ethic and clean living are still at the foundation of his Training Village, where his message continues to inspire young men.