Former UCF football standout Joe Burnett leans on Lake County roots
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback and Eustis native Joe Burnett: "My heart will always be in Lake County.''
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(ORLANDO SENTINEL FILE)
By Erika Esola SPECIAL TO THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
As aromas of grilled steak, vegetables and kabobs fill the air on a bright and sunny recent day in Eustis, members of Joe Burnett's family gather at his mother's house for a family cookout. It's a reunion of sorts, because Burnett, a former UCF football star who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had just arrived back home in Florida from Pittsburgh the day before.
"My heart will always be in Lake County, when I'm not working [in Pittsburgh], I'm here," said Burnett.
Burnett was born and raised in Lake County. His experiences growing up in Eustis and then playing at nearby UCF helped shape Burnett to become the person that he is today. As he breaks into the pros in Pittsburgh, Burnett is leaning on the values and habits he learned back home in Central Florida.
Growing up in a busy household, Burnett learned early on how to stay humble. One of five children raised by a single mother, Burnett found ways to stay competitive in sports through his siblings.
"Being a mother of five kids, you know, it's a blessing but it was hard," said Burnett's mother, Tammy Dawson. "We did what we had to do. With Joseph, it was an extra special blessing with his gift; he has just been so wonderful."
Dawson remembers that when Joseph -- she only refers to him as his given name -- was younger, he was often muscled around by his older brother, DeLeon Dawson.
"The boys, they were so competitive with each other," said Dawson.Burnett, who started playing football at the age of 7, always competed in sports against his older brother. Whether it was football, basketball, or baseball, little Joseph always tried to be like DeLeon, who was a star football player at Eustis High School while Joe was still playing Pop Warner.
"He's [DeLeon] the reason why I started playing football," said Burnett. "I always tried to be like him; he inspired me to stay competitive."
Jermaine Taylor, a member of the Houston Rockets and arguably UCF's biggest basketball star of all time, was another childhood rival of Burnett's. Taylor, Burnett's self-described AAU rival, played against Burnett in basketball all throughout middle school and high school. The two grew up in Lake County and eventually attended UCF together.
"Back in the day I was better than Jermaine in basketball, he'll admit that," said Burnett, with a chuckle. "But then suddenly something took off and now he's in the NBA. I hold down football, though."
When Burnett wasn't busy with football, he was playing basketball. Through basketball, he met one of the most influential people in his life, Eustis High School head coach Corey Rolle. Rolle, who Burnett described as a father figure in his life, took Burnett into his own home when Burnett's mother moved out of the school district. Rolle died of a brain hemorrhage in March at the age of 33.
"I was really blessed to have known him," said Burnett. "He really made an impact on me, on my life. He was there the whole way."
Rolle was there throughout Burnett's stellar career at UCF, where he was a two-time All-American, attending as many games as possible. So were his mother and his family.
During his recruiting process in high school, Burnett wanted to make sure that he picked a college close to Lake County so his family and Rolle could attend games. UCF was only an hour away.
"That's why I picked UCF, because I wanted my mom and everyone to be able to go to my games," said Burnett. "I wasn't really heavily recruited, being from Eustis, but I still wanted to stay close to home."
Burnett stayed close with Rolle even after college. Rolle was there with Burnett's family when the Steelers selected Burnett in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL draft. Rolle, with Burnett's family, was even there for a couple of games during Burnett's rookie season last year.
"I'm happy that he got to see a couple of games," said Burnett. "I'm just grateful for the time that I spent with him."
One of the lessons Rolle passed on to Burnett that the youngster took with him to UCF was staying humble. Burnett is now paying it forward onto current UCF players. He works out at UCF in the off season, and gives the players advice on how to succeed.
"I know that Josh Robinson found a lot of success when he was a freshman like I did," said Burnett of the freshman All-American. "I just told him to stay humble and to keep working hard."
Burnett still stays in touch with his former UCF coaches too, such as head coach George O'Leary, wide receivers coach David Kelly, and former UCF linebackers coach, now FIU's defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
"Joe is one of my all-time favorite players that I've had the pleasure to coach," said Collins, "Everyone knows what a dynamic playmaker Joe was at UCF as a returner and the magic he made when he got a pick. But the thing that always impressed me was Joe's work ethic in the film room, the weight room and out at practice."
Collins, who described Burnett as a "tremendous role model for the younger guys on defense," has faith that Burnett will blossom into a superstar in the NFL, not only because of his onfield talent, but also because of his work ethic and devotion to the game.
"He was always working to improve his fundamentals as a defensive back, studying opponent tapes to find anything to give us an advantage each Saturday," said Collins. "I have no doubt he will have success in the NFL and continue to inspire current and future UCF players to work hard in pursuit of their dreams to play at the next level."
While Burnett was at UCF, after his junior season, he was contemplating leaving school early for the NFL draft. According to Kelly, Burnett had told O'Leary that he would be leaving school early along with his best friend Kevin Smith to pursue a career in the NFL.
"I remember getting a call from George [O'Leary] saying that Joe had decided to leave school early, I was saying to myself , 'Oh, geez,' because in my heart I knew it wasn't the right time," said Kelly. "Joe and I spent about 5 hours on the phone that night, talking about everything. He called me back the next day, and made the right decision to stay."
Kelly believes that Burnett's future might have turned out differently if he had made the choice to leave after junior year, and was pleased when the player who was most dear to him, Burnett, made the choice to stay.
"You can tell when he decided to come back for his senior year, he had a different look in his eye," said Kelly. "He had an intense passion, drive, desire, and fire in him. He went after that opportunity and challenged himself."
Burnett stays grounded through his family and former coaches. Now that he's in the NFL and in Pittsburgh, 950 miles away from his home, he's found new mentors in his fellow teammates, especially defensive back Ike Taylor.
"I like to look up to all the guys on my team; the Steelers are a great organization," said Burnett, "Guys like Ike [Taylor] show me how important it is to work hard and how to stay in the league for as long as he has."
With the guidance from his family, coaches, and teammates, "Smokin' Joe" is looking to recreate the career that he had at UCF into a memorable NFL career. He's listed as the backup corner back on the Steelers' depth chart, but Burnett said he hopes that will change soon.
"I just plan on fitting into whatever role they put me in next season. I'm hoping to work my way into the starting rotation," said Burnett.
Wherever Burnett's career in the NFL will take him, one thing will be for sure: he won't forget where he came from, according to Kelly.
"There are guys out there that achieve something and they forget about where they came from and what it took to get there," said Kelly. "Joe Burnett didn't forget. He's a special, special, special young man. I constantly use him as an example to my players."
But when Burnett can't lace up his cleats to play on Sundays anymore, he plans on returning home, where his heart is, to Lake County.
"I love it here," said Burnett. "I'll always be here, till I die."
Erika Esola is a UCF journalism student.