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Tuesday, April 13, 2010“What do you want?” the million dollar question that at times seems so simple to answer, and at other times so provokingly painful.
That was the same question Kevin Burk kept asking his 1-year-old daughter Isabella while she stumbled around the dining room, exploring every potentially dangerous object within an arm’s reach. Not sure of what she wanted; he moved to the freezer and pulled out the first of two yogurts he would give her throughout the duration of the interview.
Kevin, a former professional soccer player turned professional family man, is finishing up his fifth year as an assistant coach for the men’s NCAA Division I soccer program at Lipscomb University.
After graduating from Belmont Abby College at the end of a successful collegiate soccer career, Burk spent five years playing professional soccer both indoor and outdoor in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) and in Division I-United Soccer League.
Adding to an already impressive professional resume, his contribution as the assistant coach has helped Lipscomb University’s men’s soccer program earn recognition as a Top 10 Division I Most improved team in 2006 & 2008, as well as qualifying for the conference tournament each year since 2007. Before 2007 the Bisons had never made it to the conference tournament.
Despite all of the awards and accomplishments that Kevin has received for his individual and team efforts, he maintains a humble persona and a servant’s heart. While soccer has played a crucial role in his personal and spiritual development, Kevin strongly believes that a person is not defined by how well they perform on the field, but by who they are off the field.
While Kevin once consider himself a long shot, he attributes most of his success to knowing what he wanted to do, staying focused, never giving up, and to a few relationships along the way which helped shape him as a player and a human being. Kevin began playing soccer at an early age, believing much of his success to be unknowingly inspired by family members.
“I have an older brother who is 8 years older than me, and when I was about 6 or 7 he was into soccer pretty hard core,” Kevin said. “I was the guy that he played with when his friends weren’t around; I was his teammate.”
While Kevin and his brother’s relationship did not exist entirely around soccer, he simply saw it as an opportunity to be with his brother.
“I remember at an early age saying, ‘I want to play soccer’ but it was more like I wanted to hang out with Patrick,” Kevin said.
Being the smaller little brother wasn’t always easy, but Kevin feels that playing with an older crowd helped prepare him for success in the years to come.
“It would just be my brother and his friends playing and I would always ask to play,” Kevin said.”My brother was a typical older brother when they let me join in. He would get embarrassed by me if I were to start crying or give up.”
Those backyard games helped him develop grittiness to his game that served him well in both the college and pro ranks.
“That was good and bad,” Burk said. “It was bad because my feelings were hurt, but it was good because I learned quickly to give 100 percent and to play hard. They didn’t care if I got hurt or if I got knocked down, they just wanted to keep playing. It helped me be tough.
“One of my main attributes when I got to college was, ‘this guy never stops’ or ‘this guy is a really hard worker’. That is what I was really great at, and I know that it was from when I was a kid and Pat would say, ‘If you want to hang out with us Kev, you gotta be a tough guy.''"
Due to the big difference in age, and Pat being in the Marines, Kevin’s brother never saw him play in an actual game until after college.
“The first game he saw me play was a professional game in San Diego when I was with the Milwaukee Wave, which was a real treat for him because he hadn’t seen me play in 10 or 12 years,” Kevin said. “In that game I was fortunate enough to start and score a goal.
“For me it was really cool that I finally got to play in front of my brother, for him it was a lot more emotional. After the game he was like, ‘I’m so proud of you’. He knew it meant a lot to me, and I knew it meant a lot to him because I told him that he was the reason that I really started play soccer in the first place. For him to know that he had such a big impact on me was a real treat for him I’m sure.”
Kevin’s parents, especially his father, were very supportive of him. However, they weren’t the type to push Kevin to practice more. They simply wanted Kevin to enjoy what he was doing.
“In some respects I always wanted my dad to outright say “you should try to play professional soccer as a career”,” Kevin said. “I wanted him to get excited about it. But I think my dad made me better by making sure I had fun and did my best.
“But he also reminded me that at the end of the day it’s just a game, and I can walk away from it. I think that helped me a lot; especially professionally, where you live and die by how you practice and play in games from one day to the next.”
Kevin found his father’s advice to be very influential later on in his career. It was his father who reminded him that soccer is just a game and how you play has no influence on you as a person. Through his father’s encouragement to have fun, Kevin felt that much of his success came from being able to be competitive and grounded at the same time.
“I always want to win,” Kevin said, “but I realize that if I lose, it doesn’t mean I am a bad person off the field. Or if I win, it doesn’t mean I am good person off the field. I think a lot of people tie their success on the field to who they are off the field.
“I think that’s really easy to succumb to. For me, I struggled less with that problem growing up. I developed late as a player and growing up wasn’t as good as everybody; but because I had people telling me that how I performed didn’t define who I was as a person, I felt like I became a better player later in my career.”
Making it as a professional athlete was not what motivated Kevin. Through his experiences and relationships growing up, Kevin found more meaning in using his talents to inspire others.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to play professionally was not only because I wanted to prove it to myself but also because I wanted to have a positive influence on people,” Kevin said.
While the road to becoming a professional soccer player was emotionally trying for Kevin, he convinced himself that he was going to make it. With all that happened in his favor, and with everything that went just right, he believed that there had to have been a higher power pushing him towards the goal that he worked so hard to achieve.
“God has impacted my life throughout my whole soccer career,” Kevin said. “That’s why I felt like I was going to make it, and keep making it because too many things happened that God was a part of.”
Even for those who question the existence of God, Kevin’s story might make one think again. How he became a professional athlete and stayed in the professional ranks is filled with examples of divine intervention, or what others might dare to call incredibly good fortune. Kevin saw it as providence.
After six months of tryouts, sometimes having to drive eight to ten hours for the chance to play in front of coaches, Kevin was ready to give up. He thought his chance to play professionally was over.
In what seemed to be the end of his soccer career, Kevin’s college coach made a phone call to the coach of the Carolina Dynamo, a team that had turned Kevin down for a tryout. Five minutes later Kevin jumped in his car and drove to a game in which the Dynamo were playing Wake Forest, and where Kevin would receive his first contract offer in the parking lot after the game.
“Turns out that two of the players who were supposed to play with the professional team couldn’t come,” Kevin said. “I had called that coach for three months and he never answered or returned my phone calls. He told me that the only reason he answered my coach’s phone call was because he misread his phone number and thought it was his buddy calling. Had he not recognized the number he would have never answered the phone call and I wouldn’t have gone to the tryout.”
Kevin will be the first to tell you that being a professional athlete you have to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to you. When Kevin arrived at the game he quickly changed and met the team on the field. Warm-ups had already started. He wasn’t given the option of where he could play; the coach just put him at play left back.
“I was just so ready to play, and ready to make an impact, that I played well,” Kevin said. “I don’t even play left back; I was just so determined I had one last chance.”
Once a professional, Kevin continued to work hard and make the best of his opportunities, never forgetting about his desire to inspire others and to never forget about the people who had influenced him.
“We used to do these school functions for the Harrisburg Heat, and one of the roles as a rookie was that you would go on these appearances,” Kevin said. “As a rookie you don’t know what you were doing so they pair you up with someone who has done it once or twice before.
“In my first appearance my teammate didn’t show up so it was just me. And as luck would have it the principal thought it would be educational if the whole school came instead of just the second grade class. I thought I was just going to show up and sign a couple autographs for the kids; instead they had the entire school in the auditorium waiting to hear about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.”
Kevin will admit he was not quite prepared for that day, but he still looks back on that moment with enjoyment.
“Once I survived that, I felt good,” Kevin said. “I realized that this was the sort of thing I wanted to do as a pro player. But once you get into that lifestyle you don’t have the time unless you make time.
“You are constantly worried about training and resting up, so I would have never taken the time to call a school and set something like this up. But after this opportunity fell in my lap, other schools started calling up and requesting me.”
While his days of playing professionally are over, Kevin still continues to inspire players of all ages, something he set out to do in the beginning. Since 2006, Kevin has spoken at more than 25 elementary schools about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and he challenges all of his players to follow their dreams.
“Even now I get a kick out of it,” Kevin said. “The kids will see the resume and they’ll be amazed that you were a professional player. They’ll think you’re a millionaire and famous so it’s not too hard to get their attention.”
Kevin’s advice rightfully reflects the experiences and relationships he previously described. To simplify it all, he was kind enough to break it down into three parts.
The first part goes back to the million dollar question, what do you want?
“Figure out what you really want to do,” Kevin said. “I mean, figure you out what you really want to do, and try to identify what God wants you to do, and hopefully they will be the same thing.
“Typically, I think what you really desire to do is what God pushes you towards. If you don’t figure out what you want to do you just go bouncing around, so decide what it is you want to do, then set a goal and write down exactly how you are going to achieve it.”
The second part, stay focused.
“Take away everything that will detract from getting you where you need to be,” Kevin said. “People seem to spend more time talking about their dreams than actually pursuing them. If you spend 3-4 hours a day watching TV, stop paying for cable.”
For his final piece of advice Kevin said, “Have fun doing it and don’t give up… It sounds so cliché but it’s true and it works.”
Kevin may love soccer and inspiring people towards their goals, but there is one thing that he finds more important in life than any other goals or aspirations.
“Without a doubt, my priority is my family,” Kevin said. “Because if I can’t take care of my family, if I don’t have a good home life, I could never be a good coach.
“ Now that I’m married and have a daughter, if I’m not here for her and my wife, then what am I really doing? Would I not be lying to everyone when I tell them to be this type of person, or to be a man of character and do the right things, or to not cut corners?”
Which brings us back to Kevin’s little girl Isabella, who has now been moved to her high chair but has never left his sight. She is still asking for who knows what as Kevin throws a combination of strawberries and lunch meat in front of her which quickly find their way to the floor.
Kevin’s goals have changed. He finds himself wanting to care for his wife and daughter. His focus is to make sure that he has made adequate time to give them. And if you asked him, I’m sure he would tell you he has fun doing it.
That is Kevin’s message. Keep it simple: “Know what you really want to do, stay focused, have fun doing and don’t give up.” Even after two treats, yogurt, lunch meat, and a handful of strawberries.
This story was written by Cyrus Eaton, a student in a sport journalism class at Belmont University. He requested that it be published on LipscombSports.com.