By Rick Assad
Whenever Ben Burnham walked onto the football field or the basketball court for Burbank High, he had two secret weapons in his hip picket that made him tough to defend.
While playing on the gridiron, Burnham, a wide receiver, would line up and then blast off down the field and after running a nearly flawless pattern, would usually snare the ball and in some cases, make an acrobatic, eye-popping catch.
On the hardwood, Burnham, a shooting guard, was a young man constantly in motion, running up and down the court, looking to make a cut to the hoop for an easy bucket, or getting the ball to the open man for a wide open jumper.
When Burnham played defense, he was constantly hounding the man he was assigned to cover.
A recent graduate who will attend Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Burnham, a 6-footer who tips the scale at 175 pounds, will play football and perhaps hoops at the NCAA Division III level, knew exactly what his top assets were and used them to the utmost of his ability.
“My best trait for each sport was speed and athleticism, which really helped in all aspects of football and basketball,” said Burnham, who grabbed a team-best 43 receptions for 1,015 yards for a 26.6 average per catch along with team-high for receivers nine touchdowns as the Bulldogs advanced to the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division VII playoffs.
In terms of which sport had a higher priority for Burnham, who will be a pre-law major, it was basketball because he didn’t try his hand at football until his second year in high school.
“I actually only started playing football my sophomore year, so basketball was my first sport, but they both came pretty naturally,” he said.
Knowing that it’s tough both physically and mentally to participate in two sports, was there ever any doubt that Burnham would engage in both?
“I played two sports because I loved the games and felt I could excel at both,” he said. “It [playing football] was not a pre-set goal coming into high school. It just kind of happened.”
Burnham’s football coach is Adam Colman, who played the position for the same school and is thankful it worked out that way.
“We take pride in being competitive. It’s one of the core values and Ben epitomized that,” Colman said. “He competed in everything he did. He challenged me to play him one-on-one in basketball if we had five minutes before practice started. He was always looking to compete.”
Colman went on: “That combined with his unselfishness made him special. When Aram [Araradian] and Kuba [Raymond] got hurt and we had to pivot to being a more run-oriented team, Ben became one of our best blockers,” he said. “For a 1,000-yard wide receiver to immediately turn all his attention to blocking is rare and speaks to his commitment to winning above all else.”
On defense, Burnham played cornerback and delivered nine solo tackles and had three assists as a senior.
There is a reason why Burnham wasn’t thinking of himself, but rather the welfare of the team.
“The main reason I try to be unselfish is because I want to win and sometimes the best way to do that might be through other people and I understand that,” he said.
Burnham, who finished with 1,377 yards on 66 receptions for a 20.8 yards per reception average and 12 touchdowns across his career, said the coronavirus threat has put a damper on his college choices.
“With COVID-19, I delayed my decision to make sure that everything would be open and safe before I made my decision,” he said.
Being focused on the task at hand helped Burnham to play at a high level, and was grateful for the student body turning out and lending support.
“The crowd noise really faded out once everything started, but coming out during timeouts and the start of games to the crowd cheering, definitely added to the hype,” he said.
Sid Cooke, the first-year Burbank boys’ basketball coach, saw something special in Burnham and feels that the program is heading in the right direction despite not making the postseason.
“He had a great attitude and led by example. I had him only one year, but his leadership set the tone for the future of the program,” he said of Burnham, who tossed in an average of eight points while grabbing five rebounds and handing out three assists this past season.
The most difficult and trying part of playing two sports was making sure Burnham’s body was ready for the grind.
“It was a pretty tough transition from football to basketball since the conditioning is so different, but after a week or two, it was pretty much business as usual,” Burnham noted.
Burnham compared each sport and the challenge each presented. “Getting hit on the field definitely hurt a lot more being that it’s a much more direct sport,” he explained. “The physicality of basketball is more about leverage and positioning.”
Burnham pointed out the two sports do take a toil, even if it’s not obvious initially.
“It’s a lot of physical work as well as stressful mentally, but all that goes away when the game starts and that’s what I love about sports,” he said.
One football game and one basketball game are stuck in Burnham’s memory bank.
“The most memorable for football was definitely my senior year against Arcadia,” he said. “I had 308 yards and three touchdowns against the defending [Pacific] League champs, breaking the school record for yards in a game by almost 100 yards. The most memorable basketball game was at Crescenta Valley my junior year. We upset them and won a close game. I had a near triple-double in the game.”
In that football contest at the Apaches in September, the Bulldogs romped to an easy 48-7 decision.
For many, spending so much practice time and game time builds lifelong bonds. You can double this when two sports are involved.
“The thing I will remember the most are the people I played with and the memories we built along the way,” Burnham said. “From every spring practice to the last team lunch.”