MHCS Alum Katie Ryan, Assistant Sports Information Director for Football at USC, wrote the following article about USC star wide receiver Deontay Burnett. Here he shares about his dedication to faith, family, and football.
You may not recognize him as he walks past you on campus. You may not notice him as he stands in front of you in line at Little Galen to get lunch. You may even sit next to him in a class at the Annenberg School and not realize who he is. But when you look at his backpack and see the “#80” football tag, you’d realize that you were in the presence of a Rose Bowl legend.
Last January, junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett tied Michigan’s Braylon Edwards’ 2005 record for the most touchdown receptions in a Rose Bowl game with three unforgettable catches against Penn State, including the extraordinary final touchdown catch from quarterback Sam Darnold.
Although Burnett, a communications major, has left his mark in the Trojan football history books, life hasn’t changed dramatically for him since that game.
“Life didn’t change for me at all,” Burnett said. “Everything is still the same. I don’t get recognized on campus. And that’s fine.”
Burnett would never be described as flashy or boisterous, typical adjectives that depict recent Trojan wideouts like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marqise Lee. While some players have an outgoing personality, Burnett’s quiet humility is something that makes him stand out.
“He’s a silent assassin,” said offensive coordinator Tee Martin. “He’s quiet. He sits in meetings and doesn’t ask a lot of questions, but he always has an intense, focused look on his face at all times. Then when he goes out and plays, you look at his body and you don’t expect him to play as big as he plays.”
The fact that Burnett, all 6-feet, 170 pounds of him, starred in a game that is described as one of the most iconic college football games of all time fits well into his storybook tale.
USC is a special university that is respected and admired throughout the world. You feel it when you walk on campus. You see it when the Trojan football players march to practice through Goux’s Gate. The energy on Howard Jones practice field is palpable. That was where Burnett first fell in love with the Trojans.
“When I was young, I came to a USC practice and I got to meet Joe McKnight,” said Burnett of the late Trojan tailback who led Troy in rushing in 2009 before going onto the NFL. “I really looked up to him, and having the chance to meet him meant everything to me. He actually gave me some gloves, and I still have them.”
From then on, USC was his dream school. Burnett knew that his hard work and strong faith would make anything possible.
“I believe in Christ. He gives me confidence each and every day,” he said. “I trust Him and know that everything is going to work out because He planned everything before I was even born.”
That plan continued to reveal itself to Burnett as he continued on with his football journey. At Serra High School in Gardena, Calif., a hotbed for collegiate and NFL talent, he began his prep career as a quarterback behind current Trojan receiver, Jalen Greene, himself a former QB. Once his junior year arrived, he realized he would get more playing time as a pass catcher.
“I really settled in at receiver that year, and then during my senior season I got a chance to catch a lot of balls and show the world what I could do,” he said. “I received some offers, and I eventually committed to Washington State.”
Even though he was preparing to become a Cougar, the future had some surprises in store for Burnett. Martin, then USC’s wide receivers coach, went to Serra one day to watch recruit Adoree’ Jackson.
“I asked Adoree’ which receiver in the city gave him the most issues,” said Martin. “I expected him to name a player that he played against from another school. He said, ‘Honestly Coach, Deontay.’ “
“I responded, ‘Deontay Burnett?’
“So the next time I went out to practice, I really started focusing on Deontay. I could see why he gave Adoree’ trouble as a defensive back. He was so smooth in transition, he catches everything and his speed is deceptive.”
When asked who won the one-handed catching contest, Burnett laughs bashfully and admits, “Uhhhh, I did. I caught 20 straight.”
“I always record things when I go recruit,” said Martin. “I brought that tape back to the staff and everyone was like, ‘Wow, this guy has great hands.’ And it’s still true today. He has some of the best hands around.”
National Signing Day had arrived, and with no offer from the Trojans, Burnett was still set on faxing his national letter of intent to Washington State. The phone rang and Tee Martin‘s name showed on the caller ID. USC was formally offering him the opportunity to be a member of the Trojan football team.
“It was crazy,” Burnett said with a laugh. “I already had my mind made up. I thought recruiting was over with. To get that call from Coach Tee and the USC coaching staff changed my perspective of where I wanted to go immediately. I talked to my parents about it, and we all came up with the decision that it was best to go to USC.”
That decision has resulted in 73 receptions for 925 yards and seven touchdowns in his career, including a breakout Rose Bowl game with 13 receptions for 164 yards and three touchdowns.
His epic performance resulted in Burnett being named to the 2016 AP All-Bowl Team first team, ESPN All-Bowl Team first team and the ESPN Pac-12 All-Bowl Team first team. The current headlines describe Burnett as the Trojan receiver to watch this season and a necessary weapon for quarterback Sam Darnold.
It’s remarkable how this young man went from idolizing Trojan football players to becoming the player that current young athletes look up to.
“As a kid I always looked up to college players and the professional players,” he said. “Now that I’m here at USC, when I see a child at practice or on campus, it warms my heart because I know that they look up to us and if we give back to them, it just makes their day. It makes my day as well because I remember I was in their same position.”
Burnett’s quiet personality suits him. He’s not the type to get hyped up and jump around to energize the team. He prefers to keep to himself and even listens to a unique genre of music to mentally prepare for a game.
“I am a mellow guy,” he said. “I’m not into getting rowdy. I’m quiet and keep to myself. Before games I’ll listen to something mellow. Then I listen to gospel, and then I listen to the latest trend of music.”
During a team photo shoot this summer, each player had the opportunity to request their favorite song to play while they were photographed. Most of the requests were Top 40-type hits. When it was Burnett’s turn, he quietly asked to have the gospel song “The Presence of the Lord” play while he took pictures.
“I listen to that song a lot. It gives me energy and it gets me going. Just to feel the presence of God is special.”
Burnett is the prime example of Coach Helton’s mantra “Faith, Family, Football”. In addition to being a man of faith, he is a young man who loves his family immensely.
“My family is a big support system for me,” Burnett said, his face lighting up as he talks about them. “They come to every game and it’s great knowing that my family is here supporting me. I also go home every Thursday before the games. My mom loves to cook so I get to go home and eat the home cooked meal before the game. It’s good to get home and relax before I get locked in.”
When Burnett is not in season, he spends weekends with his family bowling or roller-skating.
“I do that every weekend in the off season,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s something we’ve been doing since I was about seven years old.”
Faith, family and it all comes back to football. Keep an eye out for Burnett in the end zone this season. While the Coliseum may explode into a roar of cheers for him, Burnett will keep his head down, quietly return to the sideline and silently reflect upon his dream that turned into a reality. And that dream is still alive.
“Always believe in what God has planned for you,” he said. “As long as we have faith and keep striving to be the best, I feel that anything is possible for us. We have huge goals as a team of where we want to be, and we want to keep playing until January.”
Maybe then Deontay will finally be recognized on campus.
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