GREEN BAY — Oren Burks isn’t about to change who he is or what he believes in. To him, what he stands for — his dedication to public service, his commitment to making a difference in his community, and his awareness of the need for more young people like him to engage in social causes — is too important to simply focus on football.
That said, the Green Bay Packers rookie third-round pick from Vanderbilt is also too smart not to find a balance between his job — playing inside linebacker for the Packers — and his passion.
“I definitely feel like, ‘I’m here, this is my job, so I have to be professional about it and handle my business in the building first.’ That really is the first thing I’ve got to handle,” Burks said in an interview with the State Journal at the end of the team’s post-draft rookie orientation camp earlier this month. “But then, I’m definitely going to be engaged with the community as much as possible.
“But it’s job first, and I have to definitely have to handle that.”
In the wake of some fans’ negative reactions toward players who chose to protest social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem before games — and with outspoken ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick still not on a roster while his collusion case against the league moves forward — Burks said a number of teams asked him before the draft about his position on social causes. And while he did not discuss the conversations in depth, he also confirmed that he was asked whether he planned to kneel during The Star-Spangled Banner.
In a story in The Tennessean in November, Burks said that if the Commodores were on the field during the national anthem, he would have knelt. (Most college teams are still in the locker room during the anthem.) But his position has evolved as he’s seen the visceral reaction the protests received from some fans.
To Burks, the emotional responses by a portion of the NFL fan base to players kneeling for the anthem resulted in the players’ stances on the issues important to them — social and racial inequality, some police officers’ treatment of people of color — being forgotten while the focus was on the kneeling controversy.
“I think it brought a lot of attention to the issues, but I feel like people have missed the point of the actual protests,” Burks said. “I’m definitely firm on the beliefs behind it. But I feel like they kind of get the caused mixed with the actions.
“I have to be intentional about it. That’s the word I use a lot — ‘intentional.’ Just be responsible with the platform you’ve been given and be intentional about the ways you’re trying to make a difference in the community and beyond.”
Burks’ beliefs in grassroots organizing, taking part in the political process and peaceful protest stem from the example set by his great uncle, Andrew Jackson White — a personal friend of the late Dr. Martin Luther King and an activist who worked alongside King during the civil rights movement. White served as a pastor for more than 50 years, at Zion Baptist Church in Petersburg, Va., beginning in 1963 and at Union Branch Baptist Church in Prince George, Va., starting in 1965.
“I had a lot of conversations with him when I was younger and learned about the history,” Burks said. “That’s how I got interested in it.”
A three-time SEC All-Academic honor roll member and team captain while at Vanderbilt, Burks co-founded the campus organization REVAMP (Revitalizing and Empowering Vanderbilt’s African-American Population), which Burks said was “to dispel some of the negative stereotypes about being a black male on campus.” He was also the president of Vanderbilt’s student-athlete advisory committee president, received the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team award and was nominated for the Wuerffel Trophy, which honors student athletes for their community service and academic success.
Burks’ involvement dates back to his time as a 13-year-old in his hometown of Fairfax, Va., when he went door-to-door as a volunteer during the 2008 presidential campaign.
During the draft, both general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Mike McCarthy emphasized the importance of adding high-character players they believed would fit well in the Packers’ locker room. Regardless of where you stand on some of the more divisive issues being debated nowadays, questioning Burks’ character would seem difficult. And, the Packers had more exposure to him than any other NFL team, having brought him to Green Bay for his only official pre-draft visit to a team facility.
“These guys we had in on visits, that was great,” McCarthy said. “The amount of work that these scouts put into this is just remarkable. This system’s been in place. The background checks by (team security director) Doug Collins and the security (team), our area scouts do a tremendous job (with) the relationships they have in the colleges, with the college coaches.
“We feel we have a standard here and we feel that these guys fit into the standard and the culture of our locker room.”
Added Gutekunst: “Our guys do a ton of background work on all these guys. We go through the character parts of it and everything that the player coming to our organization means.”
On the field, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Burks should give new Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine an intriguing, versatile chess piece in sub packages to start. In college, Burks played some safety and both inside and outside linebacker at Vanderbilt, and he prides himself on his ability to drop into coverage. The Packers are hoping his blend of athleticism and a high football IQ will allow him to contribute right away.
“Athletic linebackers like him can do so much, not only in the run game but in coverage. They're just really, really hard to find,” Gutekunst said. “There’s a lot of guys that can do one thing really well. But both? Those guys are tough to find.”