August 10, 2016

Olympic Ties

Tony Burnett (26) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before the game against the Edmonton Eskimos at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

Tony Burnett will be glued to his television when the Olympic track and field events begin Monday in Rio.

It’s not just that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker is an avid fan of the sport. Burnett actually knows and competed against three members of the United States Olympic squad that will be competing in the long jump and triple jump.

“The three guys who actually made the US Olympic team – Christian Taylor, Will Claye and Chris Bernard – are guys I used to compete against in high school,” said Burnett following practice earlier this week at Investors Group Field.

“We’re all the same age, we’re all the same class. Chris and I, we had a rivalry in high school. We were going back and forth for the No. 1 spot in the state of California all season, so it’s actually pretty cool to see him make the team.”

Burnett Triple Jump

It was track and field that landed Burnett at Los Angeles Southwest College in 2009 for his freshman year, and though he played football (and was also on the wrestling team) at Mayfair High School, long jump and triple jump were his primary focus. And for good reason: Burnett earned All-CIF (California Interscholastic Federation), All-State, All-Conference and Long Beach Press Telegram Dream Team first team honours while at Mayfair.

Jewel Hampton (29) and Tony Burnett (26) during the game between the Montreal Alouettes and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Investors Group Field on Wednesday June 8, 2016 in Winnipeg, MB. (Photo: Johany Jutras)His accolades in track and field during his high school days were impressive alone, but what was equally as remarkable was that Burnett also starred on the football team as both a defensive back and wide receiver. In his senior season, he had 18 tackles and seven interceptions on defence as well as 15 receptions for 304 yards and four touchdowns on offence.

Burnett transferred to the University of Southern Califorinia for his sophomore year – again strictly for track and field – but a chance encounter with then-defensive coordinator, Ed Orgeron, in the spring of 2010 led to an invitation as a walk-on to the football squad.

Burnett made the team and suddenly found himself once again juggling track and field and football schedules.

“It was tough,” chuckled Burnett. “During the summer and into the fall, I’m gaining weight for football and getting strong and whatnot, and then during the winter and the spring I’m back losing weight.

“There was a rule where there were 20 hours in the week I could be doing sports so I’d have to go to football practice for two hours in order to be able to go practice with track.”

“It was funky,” added Burnett with a grin, “but I made it work.”

The California native credits the spotlight and scrutiny of competing solo in long and triple jumps with calming his nerves when competing in front of large crowds.

Burnett Trojans football“In track, especially in the jumps, it’s just you on the runway so everyone in the crowd is fixated on you and what you’re doing,” explained Burnett, who admits to having a bad case of pre-competition jitters prior to his first few meets.

“But in football, there are 11 other people out there so I think it made a lot easier to handle crowds because I know there are people around me to help me, and on the track you don’t have that. You do a big jump and it’s either ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing’ or ‘Oh my God, he’s terrible’.

“At least you get to disguise yourself a little bit on the football field.”

Now in his second season with the Bombers, Burnett doesn’t regret his decision to pursue football as a career. But watching the Olympic Games this week has understandably brought on some bouts of ‘what-ifs’.

“When I saw (the US Olympic Team announcement) I kind of thought ‘If I was still in track and field, I probably could have been in the mix to do that.’”

“I mean, it’s always good to wonder because at the end of the day, those guys are amazing. So I couldn’t be there, but hey I’m here and I’m playing football when I could be on the track and NOT making the Olympic team.”

Tapping the ‘W’ logo on his helmet, Burnett smiled and added: “I guess it worked out.”

Burnett hopes to reach out to Taylor, Claye and Bernard before their events on Monday in Rio.

“I hope the best for them,” said Burnett. “It’s almost like, you’re competitors, but at the same time you almost become brothers because you’re in the same class and you see each other all the time – you can’t get rid of each other.

“I really hope they do well,” he added with a chuckle, “because then I can always tell stories like ‘Hey, I used to compete against those guys, I used to beat this guy and he won an Olympic medal! Yeah, I’m better than him!’”