The sport that once made Tyler Burns feel miserable is suddenly providing the thrill of his life.
For that reason, it’s hard to find a more personally meaningful touchdown than the one Burns scored last week when he dove across the goal line late in Kansas State’s blowout victory over Nicholls.
That moment, and the celebration that followed, was culmination for one of the most meandering journeys in college football.
More than a year after walking away from his athletic scholarship and taking a job at Chick-fil-A in order to pay for his remaining years of college, Burns is back with the Wildcats as junior running back. And he is making the most of his second chance.
“That was the most I have been able to run and run freely,” Burns said earlier this week. “I really enjoyed it. I loved every minute of it. I never got to experience playing offense like that before.”
It didn’t feel like a fluke.
Burns finished the night with 64 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. He was also a key contributor on special teams. It looks like he might be have a future under new coach Chris Klieman.
“He is the workhorse of us all,” starting running back James Gilbert said. “He got the ball something like nine straight times on his touchdown drive. Coaches trust him, the players trust him and we all knew he would finish the game off the right way. Tyler Burns is going to do a phenomenal job this season if he keeps doing his thing.”
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t see this coming. Burns didn’t expect it, either, even though he had all the tools to regularly find the end zone when he first arrived on campus three years ago.
The former Trinity Academy product joined the K-State football team with big expectations. He had lots of speed and was recognized as a key performer on the scout team as a freshman. Then he saw lots of playing time on special teams the following year. And his older brother, Morgan, was once an electric return man for the Wildcats.
It seemed like he had a bright future ahead of him ... Until he quit.
When Burns abruptly left the team in 2018 his story with the Wildcats seemed over. K-State returned Alex Barnes, Dalvin Warmack, Justin Silmon and Mike McCoy at running back. The position seemed fine without him.
And Burns had no desire to return. He never even bothered to publicly explain his exit until now.
“I couldn’t be myself when it came to football,” Burns said. “I had a lot of anxiety and felt depressed at times. That was a big reason why I walked away.”
There were others. Burns is deeply religious and he worried that football was “overtaking” and “hindering” his spiritual life. He also wanted to focus on other things and find out how important football was to him. He didn’t want to be defined by a sport.
One more thing: football was no longer fun. He dreaded showing up for practice and workouts.
“I was pretty much clocking in,” Burns said, “and just trying to get out of there.”
So how did he return to K-State’s roster, earn back his scholarship and carve out a role as the No. 4 runner in a “perfect offense for running backs?”
In his own words, that’s a really long story.
It began when the Wildcats unexpectedly lost their top four running backs in the same offseason. Burns was still friends with several players on the team, and they urged him to come back and help in spring practice while Klieman and his new coaching staff hunted for replacements.
Burns was hesitant, but he arranged a meeting with Klieman and liked his vision. But Burns would be returning as a walk-on instead of a scholarship running back. Klieman offered him an opportunity, and nothing more. There were no promises of playing time or scholarships, just a spot on the team.
That was fine with Burns. He was set to graduate with a degree in social sciences later that semester and was willing to give football another chance, at least in the short term. So he returned the team and turned some heads in the spring. Then he kept on making plays in preseason camp.
Every day wasn’t fun for Burns, but it was a much more enjoyable process than he remembered. For the first time in years, he wanted to keep playing.
“It’s definitely been a unique journey,” Burns said. “It’s all made me hopefully a better person and stronger in a lot of ways. I have learned a lot from it.”
His teammates helped him along the way by welcoming him back with open arms.
“I understood his situation was unique,” senior safety Denzel Goolsby said. “I respected his decision (to quit) because he had his reasons. But everyone is excited for him to be back. The timing for him is great to contribute.”
When it became clear Burns could help the team this season, he started to love the game again. There was only one problem. He wasn’t sure if he loved football enough to pay his own way through graduate school in order to keep playing.
As preseason camp came to a close, and he remained a walk-on, he began to evaluate other options and seriously contemplated leaving the team again to look for a full-time job.
But then Klieman called Burns into his office and surprised him with a scholarship. Without it, Burns would “probably be back at Chick-fil-A right now.”
Instead, he is looking to build off a strong opening game.
Klieman wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Where Tyler has made a difference for me is on special teams, more so than running back,” Klieman said. “We put him on a number of special teams, and he really showed the ability and, more than that, want to be a part of them. Sometimes that’s hard for guys ... I was just pleased with his whole body of work throughout the summer and the month of August. We’re excited to have him back.”