September 25, 2017

‘Started from the Bottom’ | The Tale of Tony Burnett

When gazing out at the practice field on a crisp Fall morning in Surrey, it is impossible not to notice Tony Burnett. The lightning quick linebacker’s dreadlocks can be spotted bouncing from side to side as he sprints to make plays from miles away, but his infectious personality is what hits you first.

Burnett has brought nothing but positivity to the BC Lions ever since he joined the organization in February, but fans might be surprised to learn that the University of Southern California alum didn’t have the easiest path to professional football.

The Watts, CA product was a two-sport star at Mayfair High School, lettering in both football and track. His dream was to continue competing in track and football at the collegiate level. However, the Mayfair Monsoons are not known as a football powerhouse in the state of California and scouts overlooked Tony’s achievements on the football field.

Unable to find the perfect fit where Burnett could play football and also compete in track, he opted to attend L.A. Southwest College in 2009. Tony played on the football team but he thrived in track during his lone year of junior college. His abilities in long jump, triple jump and sprints caught the eye of the University of Southern California.

“Track opened bigger doors for me than football did in high school,” said Burnett on his experience in high school. “I did play football and run track at junior college, but track ended up taking me to SC. I took a year after high school to get bigger and better, and I caught SC, and you can’t get bigger and better than that.”

Burnett enrolled at USC as a sophomore in 2010. Due to past infractions, USC was handcuffed by NCAA regulations and was only eligible to have roughly 70 scholarship players on their roster, well under the limit of 85. This forced head coach Lane Kiffin and the rest of the Trojans coaching staff to get creative in finding talent. Tony Burnett is a prime example of this.

Tony was brought to Southern Cal for his skills as a track athlete, but he was also given the opportunity to compete for a spot on the football team as a walk-on. His athleticism was impossible for the coaching staff to ignore and ‘Tone Bone,’ as he is affectionately referred to by his teammates, earned a spot with the Trojans as a defensive back. He ultimately dressed in 37 games across three seasons.

Fast forward to November 27, 2010. Through the Trojans’ first nine games, Tony was relegated to reserve and special teams duty. However, that all changed on a rainy Los Angeles night when USC hosted their biggest rival, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. T.J. McDonald, older brother of BC Lion Tevin McDonald, went down with a shoulder injury and in came a young Tony Burnett. Having tallied just 10 tackles entering the showdown with the Irish, Tone Bone would go on to record 10 defensive stops against the Trojans’ most hated rival.

“T.J. was one of my best friends on the team and is someone I basically consider family,” said Tony about Tevin’s big brother. “I remember the coaches saying, ‘Tony, let’s go!’ and then I remember T.J. just telling me, ‘if you see a gap, shoot it.’ I saw a gap and I shot the gap 10 times that night.

“That game was really my breakthrough and changed the trajectory of my career. I was really nervous going out there against Notre Dame and I tell T.J. sometimes that his confidence in me that night changed my life. That game has led to great things for me and it’s a pivotal moment in my life.”

Following his impressive debut against the Irish and after another strong showing against cross town rival UCLA to close the 2010 season, the former walk-on had earned the opportunity to start for the Trojans in 2011. Monte Kiffin, famous for developing the ‘Tampa-2’ scheme during his time as defensive coordinator with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996-2008 was USC’s defensive coordinator during Burnett’s years on campus. Burnett viewed Kiffin as a mentor and his tutelage is a big reason why he excelled during his junior campaign.

“Monty’s football mind opened my football mind so much more than I even knew it could be opened,” said Tony on his experience playing for Kiffin. “I used to sit with him in Monty’s office, mind you I played three different positions for him, and I would learn so much from seeing him draw up plays and talk about concepts.”

Burnett, the human equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife, shifted to cornerback as a junior and outside linebacker as a senior. This is when his career really took off with the Trojans, as his combination of athleticism and size fit perfectly as a weak-side linebacker in the Tampa-2 scheme. During his final season in Cardinal and Gold, Burnett recorded 28 tackles including 1.5 tackles for a loss. The most memorable play of his college career occurred in 2012 when Tony stole the ball away from the hands of a Colorado Buffalo receiver and returned it 55 yards.

Tony went from being an undervalued walk-on in 2010 to being indispensable to the Trojans during his time his final two years on campus. Burnett was named USC’s Special Teams Player of the Year in 2012 and earned a Pac-12 Honourable Mention at Safety.

“I was a utility man for the Trojans,” said Burnett on his role with the program. “I feel like my versatility was valued by the staff there and I think the fact that they allowed me to play multiple positions made my transition to the CFL easier. You have to be a versatile athlete up here with 12 men and the wider field. I think my experience at SC helped a bunch.”

His best moments as a Trojan may have occurred off the football field, as college was truly an eye-opening experience for Tony. The vegan linebacker grew up in Watts – a famously rough inner-city community in Los Angeles. He crossed paths with people in the halls of USC that he never imagined meeting and he became a more confident person based on these experiences.

“I got a great education at a great university,” said Tony on the impact USC had on him. “The people I met there honestly changed my life. SC is so diverse as far as cultures and religions, so I met a lot of people from different cultures and religions that I never really knew much about.

“I came from the ghetto and a lot of people end up getting trapped in there, but fortunately for me, I was able to get out. I never really knew I could be friends with people outside of the ghetto, but a lot of the friends I made in college are still some of my best friends now. Being able to experience all those things changed my whole perspective on life.”

It is easy to get lost or led astray in places like Watts without a strong role model to look up to. Thankfully, Tony had a great role model in his mother, Vanessa. She went back to school when Tony was in high school and she was the first in Burnett’s family to receive a college degree, graduating from Cal State Dominguez Hills with a Master’s degree in Nursing. Her commitment to education inspired Tony to achieve his degree in Human Performance.

“My mom and I used to study together,” says Burnett. “She was going to university while I was in high school and we would do homework together at the kitchen table at night. I would go to the library with her and by doing that I learned how to be a student. I kind of got the college experience before I even got to college through my mom.”

After going from walk-on to star with the Trojans, it was time for Tony to take the next step in his career and take a shot at professional football. After a stint with the Chargers in 2013, Burnett signed with the BC Lions prior to the 2014 season. Tone Bone impressed in the preseason with the Leos, but with Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill already entrenched as the starters, the odds were stacked against Burnett cracking the 46-man roster. He was released during final cuts, but that didn’t discourage Tony.

Burnett latched on with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2015 and made the most of his opportunity. Across seven games a rookie, Tony registered six tackles, one sack and forced one fumble as a linebacker. His role expanded greatly in his second season with the Bombers, as he appeared in all 18 regular season games and the West Semi-Final against the Leos. Burnett notched 31 tackles on defense and recorded an additional 19 on special teams while forcing one fumble in 2016.

“When I signed with Winnipeg, they immediately put me at linebacker,” said Burnett. “Honestly, I didn’t like being put there initially, I’m not even going to lie to you. I was like, ‘wait why am I playing linebacker, I’m a safety’, but then I realized that weak-side linebacker in their scheme is kind of like a safety. I was able to make some plays there and found my way back to the west coast, so I can’t complain.”

Tony parlayed his breakout campaign into a reunion with the BC Lions in 2017. Once CFL free agency kicked off in February, Tony knew the Lions were where he wanted to be. The Lions had a vacancy at weak-side linebacker with Bighill departing for the New Orleans Saints and Burnett was tabbed as his replacement.

“I feel our games are just so different,” said Burnett when talking about filling Bighill’s shoes. “Biggie is a power guy obviously and I am more of a speed guy that uses my athleticism. If I try to mimic his game, it probably won’t work well for me. I am not trying to fill his shoes, but I do want to uphold his standard.”

“Tony brings a high level of athleticism,” said Lions’ defensive coordinator Mark Washington. “He is a very smart player, he has the instincts to go and make plays. Tony also knows when to as we say ‘JP’, just play. He has been a welcome addition to our team.”

Another reason for Burnett to choose BC was the opportunity to play next to Solomon Elimimian. The former CFL Most Outstanding Player and two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner is one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise. The chance to team up with a player of Solly’s caliber doesn’t come along very often.

“Tony is a great player, he is a smart player and he is athletic,” said Elimimian on the skills Tony brings to the table. “Sometimes you forget that Tony’s background is as a defensive back because of how aggressive he can be when he is coming downhill. Tony is getting better every day and that is something you want to see. He loves to learn and he wants to the best player he can possibly be. He is coming along really well.”

Thus far, Tony’s first season with the Leos has been a success. Serving as the starting weak-side ‘backer for much of the season and contributing to the Lions’ special teams units, Tony has recorded a total of 31 tackles through 12 games in 2017.

“I know what I am doing out there now and I understand my role,” said Burnett on his level of comfort in the Lions’ defense. “It was a learning process at first, but now I know concretely what I am doing out there all the time. The confidence I have in the playbook is allowing me to play more freely and with more speed. I can just react instead of overthinking what my job is.”

The tale of Tony Burnett reads like a script from a Hollywood film – fitting for the Los Angeles native. Through hard work and self-belief, Tone Bone was able to take himself from being a poor kid in Watts to earning a degree from USC to playing professional football. He has accumulated more life experience than most 27 year olds and his positive outlook has only helped the Lions this season.

“I always tell people to follow their heart. If I hadn’t followed my heart in high school and taken one of the offers from a school I didn’t really want to go to, who knows where I would be at right now? I am at where I am now because I decided to follow my heart.”

Brian Helberg: bhelberg@bclions.com