Ben Burr-Kirven is hardly a tough guy to figure out.
There’s the 17-year-old described by those closest to him as a reflection of his parents, who are “the sweetest people alive.”
At least until Burr-Kirven puts on the helmet and pads. That’s when he turns into a self-professed “friendly psychopath” who wrecked havoc on the gridiron as a 6-foot, 205-pound middle linebacker while moonlighting as a bruising running back at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton.
“During warm-ups, I will be playing around, joking with the guys,” Burr-Kirven said. “But once the game gets going, I kind of turn into — I don’t want to say a psychopath — but I think that I’m a friendly psychopath. … Obviously I don’t know all the guys on the other team personally, but I always try to find a way that makes me just hate them. At the end of the day, maybe I do yell and push and shove a little bit, but I think all of the guys know just how I get passionate about it.
“I think it’s a little bit crazed, a little bit psychotic, but I think it’s just the way you gotta play football if you’re playing middle linebacker. You can’t be scared of anything.”
It’s that mentality that keyed a run for the Gators to the CIF Division III state championship game last year as a junior, followed by an undefeated season and the Central Coast Section Open Division title this fall as a senior.
It’s also what makes Burr-Kirven, verbally committed to play next year at University of Washington, the obvious choice as the 2014 Daily News Prep Football Player of the Year.
“He’s a football junkie,” said SHP coach Pete Lavorato, who won’t hesitate to call Burr-Kirven the best high school player he has seen or coached. “He loves just playing. And I think that by the time he gets to Washington, he’s going to be a little bigger, a little stronger, a little faster, he’ll be 100 percent healthy. I think the potential that he has is tremendous. …
“I would even go out on a limb, and I know that probably this is maybe not smart to do — and you never know what will happen and I pray that he’s 100 percent healthy all the time — but I really, truly believe that Ben is the kind of kid that can play at the next level, even beyond college.”
Man of many monikers
It took until the second Pop Warner practice for him to earn the nickname “Sunshine” because of flowing locks of hair that Burr-Kirven grew out the summer before third grade.
“Honestly, probably longer than the guy in the movies by a lot,” said Burr-Kirven, referring to the quarterback in “Remember the Titans” with Denzel Washington.
Once word got out that his middle name is Southack, the call sign “Viking” became a new fad for teammates.
“I had my long, blonde hair, so they thought it sounded like some crazy Nordic stuff,” said Burr-Kirven, who more resembled Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews until he trimmed his haircut after freshman year. “So I do get that one a little bit.”
“He was always complaining about his hair getting pulled in games, but it kind of gave him a persona,” said SHP senior Andrew Robinson, a fellow middle linebacker who met Burr-Kirven in seventh grade. “Even in Pop Warner he had this certain intensity about him, where you just knew he would bring it every day on the field and practice. You knew you could count on him no matter what.”
In the summer of 2011, Lavorato sent the incoming group of freshmen to a football camp at neighboring Menlo College. That’s where the coach first witnessed Burr-Kirven’s rare combination of courage and confidence.
“The thing that sets Ben apart from most people is his natural instinct to make plays,” Lavorato said. “Ben is not afraid to make mistakes. He will go after it, and there are times where he’s too aggressive and that can be to his detriment. But that style of play, very few people have it. I’m talking about anybody — college, pro.”
An outgoing Wyatt Welch, who wound up on the offensive line, reached out to the fearsome figure during those first few practices together.
“No one else was really talking to him because of how terrifying this guy was,” Welch said. “On the field he’s a crazy guy. Everyone knows you don’t want to mess up because you’re afraid he’s going to yell in your face and tear you apart. But off the field he’s probably one of the nicer people I’ve ever met, and it definitely comes from his family. His parents are the sweetest people alive.”
Burr-Kirven, who is young for his class and doesn’t turn 18 until next September, was promoted to varsity as a sophomore. He couldn’t keep No. 11 because that number belonged to linebacker Sean Mayle.
That’s the story of how he was assigned No. 25, which he wore for one year in Pop Warner.
“Now I won’t wear anything else,” Burr-Kirven said. “I’m obsessive about it.”
Built more like a safety, the coaches at SHP had other plans for Burr-Kirven. They wanted to play him closer to the line of the scrimmage, where he would have a bigger impact.
Now he can’t envision playing anywhere else.
“I think I need to be where the action is happening, not just sitting back and covering grass sometimes,” Burr-Kirven said.
An injury to his left wrist as a sophomore during an intrasquad scrimmage forced Burr-Kirven to wear a foam cast for half the season. Then, at the midway point, he was switched along with Mayle to the defensive line.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” said Burr-Kirven, who credits Mayle, now playing lacrosse at University of Denver, for taking a raw sophomore under his wing.
The coaches even came up with a moniker for the duo: Dumb and Dumber.
“We’d just go crazy, kind of fly around out there, but we’d be making plays,” Burr-Kirven said. “So they kind of let us do our thing, but they’d always be like, ‘Man, those two are dumb.’ So I kind of always loved that.”
SHP went 12-1 in 2012, claiming the CCS Division IV title with a 13-7 victory over neighbor and rival Menlo School. Burr-Kirven had eight tackles, a sack and a career-high 14 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown.
That was just a taste of what was to come.
In 2013, the Gators (13-2) again finished as the runner-up in the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division. But after crushing the opposition by 28.3 points per game in the CCS playoffs, SHP gained a chance to prove itself in the NorCal Division III playoffs against highly touted El Cerrito, which featured multiple NCAA recruits.
Burr-Kirven lost any shot at anonymity after being unleashed to the tune of 17 tackles and one sack, plus new career highs of 15 carries, 163 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-7 rout.
“We beat them so soundly, and it was the way that the battle went and how crazy the media got and all the stuff after that,” said Burr-Kirven, whose team lost 27-15 to Corona del Mar of Newport Beach in the state championship. “You don’t really ever expect that when you come to Sacred Heart Prep, that I was going to get a chance to go as a team to play El Cerrito and then go play in a state bowl game.”
The anticipation for his senior season was nearly derailed on a fateful afternoon in early May.
Burr-Kirven, who ran a hand-timed 4.49 in the 40-yard dash the summer before his junior year, spent the spring as a sprinter on the track and field team until suffering an injury to his left leg.
“That was just heartbreaking to watch,” Welch said. “I was on the track team when he got hurt and every single person, every coach and player went over to the area to see what happened. And his face was something I’ll never forget because to him it was like his life was over.”
Instead of being out for just one or two weeks, recovery for what was originally diagnosed as a calf injury dragged through the summer.
During the opening of double days for football, the pain resurfaced. It wasn’t until the first week of school that he was properly diagnosed with a strained Achilles and his leg was put in a cast.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, especially because it was my senior year,” said Burr-Kirven, who plans to run track again in the spring.
Rather than sit around and grovel, Burr-Kirven did everything in his power to help the Gators go undefeated in the preseason.
“It was excruciating to watch him not be able to play,” Lavorato said. “At the same time, he did a tremendous job of saying, ‘OK, I’m not playing, so what else can I do to help this team win.’ … He never missed a practice. Even though he couldn’t do anything, he was there and made the other guys know that he cared and that it was important to him to be there.”
In each of the pregame meals, the last person to speak was Burr-Kirven.
“It’s like everybody couldn’t wait to hear what Ben was going to say,” said Lavorato, who thinks his pupil has a future as a coach because of his advanced understanding of the game. “Sometimes it was a little bit crazy and a little raw, but it was fun to listen to because you know it came from his heart.”
“I do get a little animated, a little wild sometimes,” Burr-Kirven said. “But it was one of those things where the other guys on our troops, the team captains, felt comfortable with me being the guy who talks last. So I had no problem doing that, and whatever came naturally to me is what I said.”
Without their star, SHP forged its own identity and rallied for key victories, including a 99-yard game-winning touchdown drive against Salinas, the eventual CCS Division I runner-up, that culminated with 9 seconds left.
Burr-Kirven practiced the week leading up to the first-ever night game at SHP, but the coaching staff chose to play it safe with the bye week on the horizon.
“It takes time, I don’t care who you are — even Ben,” Lavorato said. “Even Superman has kryptonite, right?”
Back in the saddle
The long-awaited return to the field came Oct. 17 in Pacifica against Terra Nova, a PAL Bay nemesis the Gators had never defeated. In an inspired debut, Burr-Kirven recorded 12 tackles, two sacks in a 49-28 victory. Just to show he was healthy, he added four carries for 143 yards, including touchdown runs of 48 an 80 on back-to-back snaps.
The rest of the season was a blur, capped with a showdown of 8-0 teams against Burlingame for a spot in the CCS Open playoffs that the Gators (13-0) won 35-14 behind three touchdown runs by Burr-Kirven. The next week, after a victory by the same score over Menlo in which Burr-Kirven accounted for all five touchdowns — four rushing, one receiving — SHP claimed its first outright PAL Bay title.
“I tell the guys pride comes before the fall, but Ben is humble,” Lavorato said. “He’s just so confident in his abilities and that confidence bleeds into our football team.”
That self-belief definitely came in useful during the playoffs against the “big boys” of the Central Coast Section, in which Burr-Kirven found the end zone twice each time.
First came Oak Grove of San Jose, which proved no match in a 37-13 contest as Burr-Kirven amassed a career-high 200 rushing yards to go along with 15 tackles.
Next was Los Gatos in the semifinals, a 28-21 tug-of-war that culminated with 45 seconds left on Burr-Kirven’s decisive 5-yard touchdown run.
Finally, it was a showdown with perennial power Bellarmine Prep of San Jose, a West Catholic Athletic League program. Despite aggravating a hip pointer the week before, an injury originally suffered in the regular-season finale, Burr-Kirven didn’t miss a snap on defense and only a handful on offense as he piled up 11 tackles and scored both touchdowns in a 14-0 shutout.
“I was pretty beat up, but once the adrenaline gets going it’s all going to be OK,” said Burr-Kirven, whose workload included a new career high of 27 carries for 103 yards. “It was definitely one of those games where they’re going to have to drag me out. …
“For us to be able to beat Los Gatos, a massive public school with a massive history, and then obviously Bellarmine, a WCAL school that’s gone to Open (Division playoffs) tons of times, headed down to state before, I think winning those games kind of puts our program in a place where no one can really take it away. Those are the teams that people said we couldn’t beat. So I think we’re kind of beyond being talked trash of anymore and you have to put us in the same conversation.”
Burr-Kirven racked up at least double-digit tackles in each of his eight games, including matching a season-high 17 against Burlingame.
He scored 18 touchdowns on the ground and finished as the team’s leading rusher with 862 yards on 106 carries — an average of 8.1 yards per handoff. For good measure, he caught 10 passes for 224 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown against Menlo.
None of his teammates or coaches, though, bring up stats when they speak about him.
It’s always about his work ethic, attention to detail and — most importantly — an unflinching devotion to the program, coaches and teammates.
Burr-Kirven found it hard to quantify how much this group means to him.
“It’s a bond that will never be broken no matter how far you go,” he said. “That’s kind of the basis of the program, it’s that we’re building men, not football players.”
Those who feel otherwise can take it up when they cross paths with the friendliest psychopath anyone is likely to ever meet.
Source : https://www.mercurynews.com/2014/12/25/shps-burr-kirven-chosen-prep-football-player-of-the-year/2545