Travon Burke is taking the road less traveled to keep his NFL dream alive. The former Syracuse Orange running back is currently a member of the Syracuse Strong — a minor league football team newly associated with the World Football Federation. It’s a national football league, for semi-pro athletes.
A former walk-on, Burke saw limited action under Coach Doug Marrone behind a crowded backfield of Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore.
When the Orange transitioned from Marrone to Scott Shafer, younger backs like George Morris II and Devante McFarlane fit the offense better. In college football, scheme fit is just as important as ability for an athlete.
For Burke, a Syracuse native, the talent was always there. The former high school all-star and Upstate-Downstate Defensive MVP is a bruiser. One example:
In a thud team practice period during fall in camp in 2013, Burke lined up at tailback. At the time, Shafer was trying me at boundary safety in our Okie sub-package. I was excited about the position, just trying to fly around.
The play begins and starts to develop. Quarterback Terrel Hunt hands Burke the ball, and the lane opens up between the guard and tackle. At the time, I was a lean 180 lbs. Burke was pushing 230. I follow my assignment and start to fill the hole.
As the play gets faster, I begin to realize all of my linebackers are missing, “Where’s Cam (Lynch)??? Where’s ‘Quis (Spruill)?” It was just me and him.
I won’t say I was afraid, but I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of this play. Dirty job, but it had to be done. I threw all of my body at what would be the hardest hit of my life.
Thud period practices restrict tackling. But pride was on the line. Sorry, coach.
Our helmets and pads collided and we both hit the ground. My coaches and teammates rushed over to me to congratulate me on the hit. My whole body felt like jello. My helmet had cracked and after practice I saw my shoulder pads were broken.
I couldn’t breathe and my back hurt. It felt like I’d just been in a car crash. Burke ran back to huddle like nothing happened.
Everyone on our team respected Burke. Unfortunately, during his college career his opportunities were limited. For the Syracuse native, playing with the Syracuse Strong is a chance to prove himself.
“It’s an opportunity to do what I love to do. I still feel like I can get to that next level.”
Last season for the Strong, Burke averaged 9.6 yards per carry, along with six touchdowns, leading his team to a No. 1 ranking and national championship game matchup in Daytona, FL.
“It was real nice. Unfortunately, we lost. But we’re working. Hopefully we get back.” He said.
But Burke, 25, has bigger dreams.
“I still feel like I can get to that next level.”
His goal isn’t impossible, In 2014 QB Zach Carter earned an NFL tryout following a three-year semi-pro career in Wisconsin. In 2015, WR Kendrick Ings worked his way through semi-pro and the Arena Football League to earn his first NFL contract at 26.
Recognition from the NFL is hard to come by. Per Pro Football Focus, less than 1.5 percent of college football players even get scouted.
After already being passed over, most free agents have to re-surface with an entirely new dynamic to their game to interest scouts. Burke has trimmed down, increased his power, and developed both his speed and agility.
At 6’0”, 230 lbs., some of his highlights are monstrous.
Burke says he balances work and his family in the day then practice and workouts at night.
He knows the odds. But to him it’s more than a game. The sacrifices he makes are in hopes to pass on the greater lessons from football to his one-year-old son, Travon Jr.
Despite the late nights and early mornings Burke maintains that he's up for the challenge.
"I'm sacrificing. It's hard. I'm trying to keep that grind in me. Sometimes I go to work dead tired." he said.
"But it's worth it."