By Nicole Yurchak
Success follows wherever Ryan Burkhead leads. Burkhead and football were introduced to each other when he was only eight years old. From that time, Burkhead has nourished a love and intensity for the game, which has driven him to overcome numerous challenges along the way. While in high school in El Paso, Texas, Burkhead, helped his team go from being an 0-10 team while he was a freshman to a 13-1 season three years later. By his senior year, Burkhead's knack for success helped to draw the attention of the Crimson football coaches.
Burkhead sheepishly admits that while he was aware of where Harvard was, he never dreamed that he could attend a university like it. He confesses that this was especially true since he was determined to play collegiate football and was not sure that Harvard even had a football team until shortly before his senior year in high school. "I never thought in a million years that I would be able to go to school here, let alone play football," he says. However, once Burkhead visited he claims he was "thoroughly impressed by the level of commitment there was from coaches and players to being successful." Despite the prestige of the university, Burkhead was certain he wanted to come back specifically to play football. "We're not an FBS program but when you look at all of the indicators around here, you would think it was," Burkhead points out.
Burkhead says he arrived on campus with a positive attitude, however, he admits it was a big adjustment from high school. He recalls the first time he took the practice field, saying, "I just got demolished. I was small and weak. I got ‘pancaked' at least eight times in practice." However, not being one to shy away from a challenge, Burkhead began to learn what it would take to have an impact upon the college game. He started to pay closer attention to his teammates on the defensive line. He noticed that in comparison to himself, his teammates were more physically and mentally developed.
"I paid as much attention on the sidelines as I could. For instance, discovering what I liked about my teammates' games and deciding what flaws I could take out. Basically, I picked out the different elements of their games to connect to mine in order to develop my own style further," says Burkhead. "It was definitely a learning experience and I'm glad I did it."
Due to his need to get bigger and stronger, Burkhead did not play his freshman year. Instead, he devoted the time to learning what he could do to become larger and how to better prepare himself to take the field his sophomore year. During the off-season, he decided the strength and conditioning program was a good place to start transforming his body and his game. The S&C program introduced him to the regiment of then-coach Fitzgerald. "I definitely got a lot out of the workouts. Coach Fitz was incredible. He really did a lot to make me a better player. He refused to let me be a mediocre athlete in the weight room or on the field," says Burkhead, crediting Fitz with making him a tougher athlete. "If you can do Coach Fitz's workout, you can do just about anything. Now Coach (James) Frazier is here and he has helped me become more sculpted." Since beginning the program, Burkhead has put on around forty pounds, which he sees as a big plus for his game performance.
Burkhead's hard work in the weight room is most visible on the field when he faces offensive linemen who are bigger than he is. He combines his physical attributes with unending film study of his opponents in order to gain an edge, which he uses during the course of the game. Burkhead explains that when he faces guys bigger than himself, his main advantage is his speed. "I try to put the ‘fear of God' into them by moving around a lot," he says. In addition, Burkhead found that when he battles bigger offensive linemen using head fakes and his hands have been his best weapons of distraction to get around them.
However, Burkhead admits that he has never been the type of player to win battles out of pure athleticism. "I'm more about instinct and being in the right position on the field," he explains. As a defensive lineman, he feels it is important for him to be able to use his hands a lot. "I was blessed with long arms so I take advantage of my reach." Burkhead said. "Pass rushing is kind of like a dance sometimes. You have to coordinate moving your feet with your hands and having the best timing." So far, he has is pleased with his performance.
Burkhead's performance has been continually growing. One of the toughest lessons he learned was to compensate for his lack of size more than other defensive linemen do. He finds that committing himself to film study is a good way to keep his performance on the field constantly evolving. Burkhead believes that of watching hours of film provides an invaluable asset when looking for weaknesses in his opponents. Some of the most common things he looks for are, "if a player sits back on his heels a lot in his stance or if [he is] going to be able to judge where the player is going by the way his helmet is pointed before the ball snap." Burkhead adds that the more weaknesses he can find in an opponent the better able he is to take advantage of them come game time.
While Burkhead uses film to prepare mentally for a game, he prepares himself physically for a game, by combining fun with focus and a strong work ethic. Burkhead's work ethic has not gone unnoticed by Coach Murphy, who says, "Burky is a classic ‘Jekyll and Hyde' personality as a football player. Off the field, he's one of the nicest and most sincere kids you will ever want to meet. On the field, he has an energy and intensity level that sets the pace for our defense."
Burkhead says that his energy on the field comes from a sense of urgency, which he never lost since his time as a freshman. He thinks not playing his freshman year was a blessing in disguise because without that time to alter his game and body he would never have been able to make himself the formidable presence on the defensive line that he is today. However, the real secret to his success, he explains, is due to his ability to stay focused and grounded during each game. "I'm never going to be a perfect player but if I play every game like it's my last and learn from my mistakes without getting frustrated then I know that I did everything I could for the team," Burkhead says.
2009 has been a tough year for Burkhead, who will miss the season with a foot injury sustained in preseason. However, Harvard fans can prepare to watch for him again in 2010 as he strongly considers a return for his final year of eligibility - ever stronger and prepared to contribute.