Originally created 09/15/99

Jackets must move forward without Burns



ATLANTA -- Like most students, Georgia Tech tailback Joe Burns probably enjoys his college breaks.

But unlike Christmas and spring, a break of another kind has ended Burns' season and will cause him to drop out of classes for a semester.

Burns (5-foot-10, 205) broke his femur at the end of an 18-yard run in Saturday's 41-35 loss at Florida State. He will have season-ending surgery Thursday, and after a little recovery time in the hospital, Burns -- who turns 20 years old today -- will probably head home to Thomasville, Ga. He will be able to start a rehabilitation program in six weeks.

Tech head coach George O'Leary said it is not uncommon to see athletes drop out of school after suffering a serious injury, and then re-enroll the next semester or quarter.

"The difficult thing is that he will miss two weeks of class (due to the surgery), and then he'll be laid up a while after that," O'Leary said. "Then after that it would be really difficult for him to get around campus and get to class."

O'Leary said dropping out is actually the prudent move from an academic standpoint, because Burns, a management major, would not be penalized for being absent from class and falling behind in his studies.

"His academic calendar will stop, and he will be able to re-enroll in January," O'Leary said. "The NCAA says that's OK."

O'Leary thinks the Yellow Jackets' potent offense should be OK, too. But Burns' absence will definitely be felt, tangibly and intangibly. Burns earned the starting tailback job as a true freshman late last season and was Tech's leading returning rusher with 474 yards. This season, he was the team's second leading rusher with 87 yards on 14 carries.

"He brings a lot of intensity to our offense," O'Leary said. "He can do so many things. If we had to lose a running back, he's probably the one we can least afford to lose."

Phillip Rogers (6-foot-1, 230) a redshirt senior had been splitting time with Burns, and his workload will probably increase, starting with Saturday's home opener against the University of Central Florida (7 p.m.).

Three others from Tech's youthful stable of backs will vie for time with Rogers. Freshman Michael Kitchens (5-foot-10, 190), leads fellow freshman Sydney Ford (5-foot-9, 195) from Lindale, Ga. and redshirt sophomore Sean Gregory, from Homewood, Ill.

"Kitchens, I thought, had the best preseason," O'Leary said of the Lebanon, Pa. native. "He cuts well in the hole and has good vision. His biggest problem is protection in the passing game.

"Ford and Gregory have done well, also," O'Leary added. "But we'll miss Joe. He brings so much to the team from a chemistry standpoint."

O'Leary said he will make sure Burns knows he is still part of the team.

"I'll monitor him and let him know that he still has a role to play on this team," O'Leary said. "He brings his experience that he can pass on to the other guys."

In the meantime, Tech's loss is Thomasville's gain. One of the most famous sons of this southwest Georgia town is coming home, even though the reason for Burns' return is not a happy one.

Cleo Burns, Joe's mother, said her phone hasn't stopped ringing since word got out that Joe was coming home.

"We're going to try to keep his spirits up, keep him encouraged," she said. "We'll put up some decorations because he's going to have a lot of visitors."

Cleo Burns said this is the first time in her son's career -- going back to youth leagues -- that he will miss a game because of injury. In his four-year career at Thomas County Central High, Burns rushed for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, while leading his team to state titles his junior and senior seasons.

"I've been letting him know that everything works out for the better and that God still has good things to show him," Cleo Burns said.

One of those good things will be the homecoming meal his paternal grandmother, Bessie Burns, is already planning.

"Oh, I'm going to fix him a good meal," she said. "I haven't decided what it will be, but whatever it is, it's going to be good."