When Omaha Burke running back and safety James Burks walks off the bus, opposing teams may not notice him. The 5-foot-9-inch, 170-pound junior doesn’t cut an imposing figure. But inside his own locker room, his presence is known.
“He’s a tough dude,” said Burke head football coach Paul Limongi. “I don’t think there’s too many guys in this school that want to mess with him.”
That toughness, according to Limongi, is the wrestler in Burks. It’s something that came early in Burks’s life.
As a boy of 6 years old, Burks lived in the 14th Street neighborhood in northeastern Omaha. It’s a neighborhood that has seen tough times throughout Omaha’s history, and remains one of the city’s two most impoverished zip codes.
“He hasn’t had the easiest of life,” Limongi said. “He’s seen a lot.”
It was there, on the street, that six-year-old Burks met Mark Lincoln, a coach with the Sherman Challengers youth wrestling club. Lincoln asked Burks if he wanted to wrestle, so Burks asked his mother for permission and began his athletic career. He would also be turned on to football by the club.
“I fell in love with sports,” Burks said. “I can’t see me doing anything else for the future.”
And that future is very bright for the two-sport star.
As a freshman in 2015, Burks finished the wrestling season with a 49-3 record and a state championship.
James Burks 2017 Metro Conference Champ!! pic.twitter.com/0un9nR6KZK
— Burke Wrestling (@BurkeWrestling1) January 15, 2017
Burks promised Omaha Burke wrestling coach Wes Boehm that he would be Boehm’s first four-time state champion. So far, he’s upheld that pledge, finishing his sophomore season with another 49-3 record and another gold medal at the state tournament.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, despite his sterling record. Three times his freshman season, Burks had to wrestle his brother, Otis Rollins, then a senior at Omaha North.
Burks won all three meetings, including their showdown for the gold medal at the state tournament.
“That was pretty crazy,” Burks said. “But we’re still good brothers and man enough to face it when we had to come to battle.”
It’s evident when speaking to Burks that he views all athletics as a battle. He speaks softly, but with a certain intensity. He holds some fire inside, a fact that he admits. He finds an outlet in football.
“I like to run angry,” Burks said. “I like to hit people.”
It’s that kind of courage that Limongi saw when calling Burks up to play varsity football as a freshman.
“We brought him up to return punts and kicks,” Limongi said. “When he gets on the field, he doesn’t back down from anybody. He doesn’t care how big you are.”
Burks is part of a junior class in 2017 that has spelled a renaissance for Bulldog football. Burks and five others played as freshmen in 2015, but won only three games.
The 2016 campaign unfolded much differently. The Bulldogs, with Burks starting at safety, finished 8-3 and won a first-round playoff game before falling to Lincoln East in the second round.
They entered 2017 as the No. 1 ranked team in Class A and remain atop the rankings with a 5-0 record.
And Burks has delivered on the promise he showed two years ago, on special teams.
Through five games, Burks has run for an average of 119 yards per game and has found the end zone 14 times. For Burks, it could mean a dilemma of the best kind.
“I’m not sure what he wants to do at the next level,” Limongi said. “Obviously, he’s a tremendous wrestler, but he’ll have an opportunity to play football.”
It’s entirely possible that Burks could win state championships in both football and wrestling in 2017.
And it might have never turned out this way, if not for that meeting a decade ago, when a youth sports coach took an interest in a six-year-old on 14th Street.
“It’s had a very important impact on my life,” Burks said. “I don’t know if I’d be the same person today without it.”