MANHATTAN, Kan. – With his Pro Day workout over, Morgan Burns caught his breath and stepped away from football in late March to embark on a week-long mission.
The purpose of the journey proved close to Burns’ heart and it took him halfway around the globe on a 15-hour flight to East Asia to educate others on his devotion.
“We got to talk about our faith and talk about Jesus, so that was really cool,” Burns said with a wide smile. “A lot of the students have never heard of who Jesus is before. That was kind of eye-opening.”
Embarking on religious missions isn’t new for Burns, who said he went on a trip to Central America during his junior year in high school. He is also involved in public speaking engagements at local churches through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
The trip to East Asia, however, marked the first opportunity for Burns to share his faith on a broader scale since he arrived at Kansas State on a football scholarship in 2012.
“I feel like I learned a lot of what’s going on in a different country and kind of being a part of what God is doing across the world,” Burns said. “I enjoyed it.”
Burns has two passions that are sure to elicit positive responses. The mention of his faith results in a bright smile, while discussing football brings a look of determination.
Juggling the two could offer a challenge for anyone not fully committed to either, but Burns, who turns 23 on May 19, manages to find balance to help fuel a drive to succeed in everything he does.
“I think, first of all, it’s kind of given me a reason to play knowing where my talent came from,” Burns said of his faith. “And two, I think when you have an understanding that football isn’t all I have because I’m fully aware that I’m going to be done playing football one day. Football isn’t eternal by any means.”
Burns, who aspires to one day be in the ministry, said knowing football is a sport allows him the freedom enjoy it. He adds dedication to his faith played a large role in getting him through the past four years as a student-athlete.
“College football can be grueling – the schedule, waking up early, going to classes, practice, meetings,” he said. “If I didn’t have Jesus, I would have lost it.
“It kept my focus in the right place, and not to get angry, upset and it just helped me work hard. I think through my faith, it just makes me want to be a good teammate and love all the guys on the team, sacrifice, it helps me do all those things.”
Burns comes from a devout Christian family, and his mother, Greta Burns, said in a telephone interview she and her husband, Brad, were raised in Christian homes while growing up in the greater Kansas City, Mo., area.
The family eventually moved to Wichita, Kan., where Greta said her husband made a commitment to have their four children – Morgan, Chandler, Tyler and Ashley – raised in the same environment.
For his part, Burns said he fully embraced his faith while in seventh and eighth grade, and he was involved in a youth group before high school at Trinity Academy.
His development as a young adult is a source of immense pride to his parents.
“We never expected what happened as far as Morgan and his spiritual growth,” Greta Burns said. “His dad and I talk sometimes that as far as spiritual maturity, he’s far exceeded what we thought he would be, especially at the age that he is. It’s been pretty exciting to see.”
While his faith provides an anchor, Burns used his athleticism on the football field in high school to electrify as a running back.
He rushed for 2,700 yards and 36 touchdowns in his final two seasons and was a track and field star and a member of the basketball team.
Burns’ accomplishments as a state champion in the men’s 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter events caught the attention of K-State. And the school’s recruitment of Burns had connections that produced a positive effect on Burns’ decision to become a Wildcat.
“My older brother (Chandler) ended up coming here, so that was kind of my first connection with K-State,” Burns said. “Arthur Brown, I grew up running track with him and his brother (Bryce). K-State started recruiting me – they actually found out about me through track and found out I could run – and then figured out I played football, so they offered me my junior year.”
Burns committed to K-State in 2011 before grayshirting to the spring of 2012, but he found himself on other side of the football after being asked to convert to cornerback.
“I still wonder why,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I love running the ball. When I first got here, they kind of recruited me as an athlete.”
The transition from offense to defense resulted in growing pains, and Burns admits the position change wasn’t easy.
“First couple of years was very frustrating because I wasn’t really good at all,” Burns said. “I told guys I was probably the worst corner in the Big 12 my freshman and going into my sophomore year, so it was hard.”
The move also required Burns to adjust his mindset from avoiding tacklers to delivering the blow to take down a ball carrier or receiver.
Burns committed himself to improving as a defensive back entering his second training camp by watching film and working on technique, and his willingness to embrace the hard work impressed a former college teammate.
Defensive back Randall Evans, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, said in a telephone interview he marveled at Burns’ determination and endurance.
“He never gets tired, he’s a smart guy, has a high motor and killed all the workouts,” Evans said. “It’s amazing once you see how that guy works. He’s definitely one of the hardest workers I’ve seen at Kansas State as a young guy.”
While Burns learned to play cornerback, he still longed to have his hands on the football.
He understood the limited opportunity to play running back at K-State, so Burns expressed his desire to contribute on special teams as a returner.
But there were two talented obstacles standing in his way and making an impact meant remaining patient.
“My freshman year, I was third string behind Tyler (Lockett) and Tramaine Thompson, and slowly worked my way to off-returner and returner last year,” Burns said. “That was the way to get the ball in my hands and that was my favorite part of the year last year – kick returning.”
Burns more than excelled to become one of the top returners in K-State history and established a single-season record in kickoff yards returned (1,138) on 34 attempts.
He also tied the school record with four kickoff returns for a touchdown in a single season en route to being named the Big 12 Special Teams of the Year, while finishing his collegiate career ranked second in school history in return average (30.8), third in yards (1,572) and sixth in attempts (51).
Defensively, Burns started 12 games at cornerback in 2015, totaling 38 tackles, an interception and 11 passes defensed. He had 48 career appearances with 24 starts at cornerback.
Despite an accomplished senior season as a returner, Burns didn’t receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine, an annual event where the nation’s top draft prospects are put on display in front of all 32 NFL teams.
Burns didn’t allow the snub to bother him.
“I really didn’t have expectations to get invited,” he said. “The way I kind of saw it is, yeah, I had a successful year returning, but I had an OK year playing corner and I know I didn’t have an exceptional year. I could definitely see why they would invite me as a returner, but I can see why they wouldn’t as a corner.”
That Burns is well-grounded and strives to identify positives in every situation doesn’t come as a surprise to his mother.
“I think that we’ve just tried to instill in him, especially when it comes to sports, you just stay even-keeled, you stay coachable,” Greta Burns said. “As far as the ego, don’t ever have that, just never have an ego and all your attitude and everything, just set aside because it’s a team sport. We just want to make sure he can stay coachable, never think you know it all.”
Meanwhile, Burns not participating in the Combine won’t spell the end for him.
CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com currently project Burns as a sixth- or seventh-round pick, and senior draft analyst, Rob Rang, firmly believes Burns will have shot at the next level based on an attribute that can’t be taught.
“The first thing is just spectacular speed,” Rang said in a telephone interview. “This is a guy, like Tyler Lockett a year ago, he’s just a different level of straight-line speed and NFL teams are always going to be excited about that.”
Burns’ high school football coach, Tyler Ryan, agreed emphatically in a telephone interview when asked the first thing he will always remember about his former player.
“Speed,” said Ryan, who now coaches at Wellington High School in Kansas. “Whenever I came to Trinity, we didn’t have a very big team in terms of numbers. He was kind of a do-it-all type of kid for us and the speed that he has was just unbelievable whenever he stepped out on the field. Obviously, it changed games for us, won us a lot of football games.”
Burns impressed at his Pro Day workout by clocking an unofficial 4.38 time on his first 40-yard dash, followed by a 4.34 effort in front of scouts and representatives from the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns.
His athletic ability and potential to grow as a cornerback resulted in a predraft visit with the Green Bay Packers, a private workout with the Colts and the 49ers reached out to express interest.
The Cardinals and Chiefs also paid special attention to Burns after his Pro Day workout. The Chiefs, in particular, asked Burns questions and had him take a test.
Burns said he doesn’t have a preference where to play at the next level, but admits potentially staying close to home is appealing.
“It’d be fun because both my parents are from Kansas City and my grandparents live there,” Burns said. “It would be fun to go back where they’re from.”
Nevertheless, Burns knows he has a lot of unfinished work outside of being a returner because NFL teams will expect more from him as a defensive back.
And staying true to his nature, he isn’t shy from pointing out two parts of his game, which he categorized as biggest points of emphasis, requiring improvement.
“I need to work on my open-field tackling, for sure, come down on the run because running backs in the NFL are a lot bigger than in college,” Burns said. “I need to work on my downfield coverage because I know I had a few games last year where I think I did a poor job of playing the ball.
“Instead, I tried to play the man and get my hands in their face, when in the NFL you have to turn and look at the ball. Probably working on my press coverage, as well. I know there are a lot bigger receivers in the NFL. I’m not too worried about quicker, fast guys as I am about more physical, big guys off the line.”
Burns has the benefit of training camp before the regular season to address those areas, and Randall Evans believes the time spent working on fundamentals combined with speed will prove beneficial.
“I think he has that time to focus on his mechanics, focus on his body preparing for the NFL,” Evans said. “So, hopefully he’s transitioning well to put that speed at corner, which will help him a lot at the next level.
The week leading to the NFL Draft often produces anxious moments for numerous prospects entering the unknown.
But Burns, who graduates in May with a bachelor’s degree in communications, refuses to worry about his situation.
“My expectations are very similar to not getting invited to the Combine,” he said. “I know a lot of people say I could get drafted the last two rounds or I could be a priority free agent. That’s a pretty big range, so I’m trying not to get my hopes up on what’s going to happen and whatever happens, just take it for what it is, work hard and do my best.”
Burns has a foundation in his faith and what he accomplished in a K-State uniform to keep him free of stress.
Moreover, Burns can fall back on the wisdom of College Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder and apply the lessons learned at K-State to the future.
Burns said Snyder emphasized the importance of comparing what players do on the field and training room to real life and to accomplish tasks to the fullest capability.
“He would always say if we’re doing things half-heartedly here, then that’s going to transfer over to your wife one day or how you treat your kids one day, your job,” Burns said. “He really pushed us to work hard and to be all-in, to be disciplined where we are now.
“Down the road there will be serious consequences if we mess up or don’t work hard because we’re going to have a family, a job, and so I really appreciate that about him. He saw past football for us, he understood that football is going to end one day, so I just have that mindset to always grow the character of the man. Football isn’t forever is something I learned from him.”
Burns plans to spend the weekend of the draft in Wichita with family and loved ones, including his girlfriend, Kelsey Schultz, who has provided moral support as Burns goes through the draft process.
“I think I’m mostly excited to know that in his opportunity, I’m very confident that he’ll use whatever he’s going to do to serve Christ and his Kingdom to further that to build relationships,” Schultz said. “Whether that’s in the NFL or not, I’m excited for that and I’ll be faithful to God’s will for him. It’s fun for me to watch.”
In the meantime, the reality of taking the next step as a football player could arrive if Burns hears his name called out on the television set during the NFL’s three-day selection process.
Burns briefly pauses and leans back, allowing the enormity of the scenario to sink in. When the words come out, it is clear he will be grateful for whatever comes his way.
“Very few people play college football, Division I, and then the percentage of people playing in the NFL is tiny,” Burns said. “So, I think being drafted, being part of an NFL team and make it to a camp, that would be crazy. That would be surreal if it were to happen and I’ll just try and enjoy it the best I can because how many people can say that happened to them?”
Herbie Teope is the lead Chiefs beat writer for The Topeka Capital-Journal and ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.