Jeff Burris was a highly recruited running back from Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, S.C. He decided to leave the warm weather of South Carolina to play football at Notre Dame after receiving a challenge from a state school coach in his home state who was recruiting him. He went on to be an All-American defensive back at Notre Dame, also featured at running back in the goal-line package. A first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1994, Burris made the NFL All-Rookie team that year. He went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL before being forced to leave the game because of concussion problems. He started 119 of those 144 games and his career totals included 529 tackles and 19 interceptions. He played in the NFL for the Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals before retiring after the 2003 season.
Q: How did you make the decision to leave your home state and play football at Notre Dame?
A: “When I was being recruited as a high school running back, I had no idea that Notre Dame was recruiting me. When the whole recruiting process started and various coaches were coming to visit me, this one particular coach mentioned to me that he heard I was on Notre Dame’s recruiting list. When you live in South Carolina, you don’t hear much about Notre Dame football. I came to learn that Notre Dame was getting the best talent in the country to come play for them. I thought, if I am on their list, maybe they should be on my list as well. This particular coach who was recruiting me went on to tell me that if I went to Notre Dame (instead of his school) that I would never be heard from again, because I was not at the caliber of a Notre Dame football player. That really motivated me to prove to him and everyone else that I had what it took to be successful at Notre Dame.”
“When I made my recruiting visit to Notre Dame, Tony Rice was my host. When I stepped on campus, I knew that was where I wanted to be. It just felt like home. I knew I could be successful there, that I had what it took to put in the work and be a competitor. The campus was immediately embracing to me. I knew I wanted to be a part of the Notre Dame family.”
Q: Did Tony Rice influence you to wear No. 9 with the Irish?
A: “He made a deal with me when I was there. He told me that if I came to Notre Dame that he wanted me to wear No. 9, and that we would start a tradition of South Carolina boys wearing jersey No. 9. How could I say no to that? And what surprised me even more was that Coach (Lou) Holtz was receptive to our plan. I may not have had the kind of success that Tony Rice had at Notre Dame, but I did my best to uphold some of the strides that he had gained.”
Q: What was it like being switched from running back to safety position your freshman year?
A: “I started out at running back position for the first nine games of my freshman year. By the end of the season our secondary was pretty depleted, so the coaching staff held tryouts for the safety position. Being that I was a backup running back, I decided to go ahead and try out for the chance to move over to the secondary. I finished the rest of the season as a safety, and then was given the choice of either staying in the secondary for my sophomore year or move back to running back. I decided that being a starter in the secondary was much better for me than being a backup running back. I had played some defensive back in high school, so the transition was not too complicated. Plus my brother was a starting corner at the University of Arkansas. I immediately got on the phone with him to get his thoughts and advice.”
Q: What is your favorite Notre Dame football memory?
A: “It has to be the game we played my freshman year against Michigan. It was a Saturday night game and they brought in temporary lights for the stadium. Michigan comes out to kick off the ball, and we all knew that there was no way they were going to kick the ball to Rocket Ismail. Coach Holtz put me out there with the special teams unit, and they kicked the ball to me. When I got the ball, I didn’t really even try to make a big return, I just ran straight for the sidelines. All I wanted to do was get to the sideline as quickly as I could so that I didn’t get hurt, and I didn’t drop the ball. It was a terrible return! When I got to the sidelines all of my freshman buddies were so excited for me. At that moment, the results didn’t matter one bit. They were so excited that I caught it, returned it and was on TV. Our class was such a close knit group. They were my family. That moment really sticks out in my mind.”
“Being at Notre Dame was a huge privilege for me. To be at a place surrounded by legendary players and coaches, to be able to walk in such greatness, was an honor for me. When I go back and walk around the stadium, I have such great memories. The funny part of all of my memories from school is that they are all on-campus memories. We never had to leave campus. Everything we needed was right there. It means a lot to me that all of my great memories are those which took place within the school walls.”
Q: The night before the 1993 Notre Dame- Florida State game you had a dream that you’d return an interception for a touchdown. Did having two offensive TDs instead make up for this dream not coming true?
A: “Absolutely not. I did have a big game that day from a running back perspective, but not from a catching perspective. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to excel at everything I did. That was just the way we played.”
Q: How did you like living in Carroll Hall?
A: “Initially when I found out I was living in Carroll Hall I was very disheartened because I had been told that they didn’t put athletes out there. I called home and told my family that I didn’t think they wanted me because they had placed me in a dorm where athletes were not placed. The majority of my friends on the team were living in Keenan Hall and Morrissey Hall, but I ended up absolutely loving Carroll. It was awesome to be able to get away from my teammates and experience the typical college life. It was almost like being off campus, even though you really were on campus.”
Q: How do you remember your NFL Draft?
A: “It was very simple for me: I wanted to go home and watch the draft with my family. It was, hands down, one of the longest days of my life, but also one of the happiest. They had a professional photographer at the house, and he snapped a shot of my mom and I hugging when I was selected (in the first round, the 27th overall pick) by the Buffalo Bills. We’ll always have that photograph, of me hugging her with the phone in my hand. What an amazing moment. It was such a long day, but absolutely gratifying at the end.”
Q: What were the highs and lows of playing in the NFL?
A: “The people that I met playing in the NFL were definitely a high for me. I didn’t only play with Hall of Famers, but truly great people. Not to mention that they were from such a wide variety of backgrounds. That really made things interesting. I played with Jim Kelly, Peyton Manning, absolutely humbling to be able to say that you stepped out on the field with those greats. You get to see a side of the “stars” that most people never get the opportunity to see.”
“The fact that I actually chose to retire after 10 years as a result of all of the concussions I received was a definite low for me. I felt like there were still many things that I could have accomplished professionally, but the health risks were simply too great. With brain stem injuries, you don’t ever really get a good read on how bad they are, or how much more you can take. I decided that the risk of further damage was more than I was willing to take.”
“Even retiring when I did, I still have some residual effects from all of the concussions. I still have headaches and have a certain amount of memory loss. There are certain time frames of my life that I have simply lost. But it is difficult to say what is concussion related and what is not.”
Q: What was the highlight of your NFL career?
A: “Being a part of a team that had one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history was a shining moment of my NFL career. We (the Indianapolis Colts) went from being the worst team in the AFC, to the first-place team in just one short year. We were 3-13 in 1998 and then finished 13-3 in 1999. After coming so far, we ended up losing in our first playoff game. It was a double edged sword. We had fantastic comeback success that year, but we didn’t have success when it mattered.”
Q: What were your life experiences like after the NFL? I noticed you did a coaching internship with the Bills in 2008 and also coached in the UFL and at the high-school level.
A: “It was a very difficult transition, leaving the NFL and moving on to the next chapter of my life. Part of what made it so difficult for me was the fact that I was not completely prepared for what to expect next. You go from organized chaos to this big unknown. Now what? My first post-NFL business venture was a clothing store that I opened, but that became financially costly for me. Then I decided to try my hand at broadcasting, but if you are not a Pro Bowl or Super Bowl alum, the doors just don’t open for you. Now I have transitioned into something that is perfect for me. I have returned to football and am coaching at the University of Massachusetts. I am their cornerbacks coach and I’m also responsible for community relations. A big part of my job is recruiting and I am on the road a lot, but it is a labor of love for me. My recruiting territory is Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, my home state of South Carolina, and Indiana. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Q: What is your favorite Lou Holtz memory/story?
A: “Coach Holtz was wonderful to me, both as a coach and a person. Prior to the BYU game, I remember him coming up to me and telling me all the different ways I had already scored a touchdown. Then he told me all of the ways I had yet to make a touchdown, and how he was going to help me achieve them and secure my place in Notre Dame history. The fact that he was so aware of what I had done, and what I had yet to do was very humbling to me.”
“I’d like to thank Jeff Burris for spending some time with me this week. Next week I’ll be talking with defensive end, Bertrand Berry.”