Burke '12 Recalls 'The Comeback'
by Tyler Burke ’12
December 29, 2013
Wabash’s improbable 29–28 win over the heavily favored North Central Cardinals in the 2011 Division III football playoffs was even more unlikely considering the quarterback who led the Little Giants that day. Tyler Burke ’12, who had left the College for a year to join Air Force ROTC at Western Michigan University and returned to a backup role at Wabash, was making his first start of the year for the injured Chase Belton ’13. Two of his first three passes were intercepted, he was being leveled play after play, and Wabash managed only 79 yards of offense in the first half. Late in the third quarter, Wabash was behind 28-7.
But something started in that third quarter that Wabash fans packing Little Giants Stadium that day could hardy believe, and Tyler Burke will never forget.
Here’s how it felt inside his helmet that day.
November 26, 2011, was everything I could have asked for: a partly sunny day; we were alive for another round in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Division III Playoffs; I was about to start my first game of the year for Wabash. I had transferred to Western Michigan my sophomore year, which is what it took to make me realize Wabash was really my home. But I’d only seen action in only four games of this, my senior, year. This day was my chance to really contribute to what had been a record season for us.
We were up against the number-six team in the country—a team with 20 Division I or junior college transfers from schools like Oregon and Western Illinois. We knew we were in for a fight. Wabash Football was finally matched up against equal, if not better, players.
The first half was atrocious, painful, and embarrassing. When it ended, I had never felt so low in my football career. My first two out of three passes were intercepted and we had 70 yards of offense. Our first six drives resulted in an interception, interception, punt, punt, punt, and punt. My ribs had been battered. They felt as if they were sticking straight into my lungs. My head was hurting so badly it felt like my helmet was closing in on me. My left calf was gashed open by a cleat. My body wanted to give up, but my heart didn’t.
In Knowling Fieldhouse at halftime there were arguments, but there were hugs, too. We knew we were all fighting a war against our own bodies, as well as North Central. As I lay facedown on the floor, I heard Chase Belton say, “Don’t you dare give up on this team. You haven’t worked hard your whole life to give up in the playoffs of your senior season.” Chase peeled me off the tarp flooring and walked me around the room as my arm rested over his shoulder.
Coach Raeburn came in, calm and collected. “We have to cut down on mistakes and fight until the end,” he said. “That’s all I ask.”
It was silent for a moment after the coaches left for the field.
Then a loud voice echoed off the walls of the fieldhouse: “Wabash Always Fights.” It was Kyle Najar, defensive back and co-captain. “I will die for what I love,” he said. “Wabash Always Fights,” he yelled over and over. “Wabash Always Fights.”
He pointed to those words on the fieldhouse wall and said, “That wall is looking back at us in disappointment!”
We left the field house with a strange feeling—one I believe none of us had ever felt before, especially after a first half like the one we’d just played. It was a feeling of assurance and protection.
The second half started as punishing as the first. I took more shots to the ribs, and my tongue had a hole in it the size of an eraser. But we scored on our first drive of the second half. I prayed for the strength to give all I had and to finish the game.
My body suddenly regained strength. The pain in my head diminished, my ribs went from constant pain to hurting only when I was hit. My leg stopped bleeding.
In the final 10 minutes of the game, we scored touchdown after touchdown after touchdown. They fumbled; we caught a desperation throw over three men. They punted; we found ways to finish fourth-down conversions and score.
During one play in the fourth quarter I released a desperation pass to Wes Chamblee as the defense pile-drove me into the turf. I lay there face-first; I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t move. Either their fans or our fans were going to cheer. I waited and listened.
The Little Giants’ fans were roaring! Wes had caught the ball between three defenders!
The game was taking a sudden and miraculous turn. I drank water and it never tasted so good; I sat down and it never felt so glorious. We scored touchdowns and they had never seemed so special or hard-earned. We were down only one point—28-27, with 51 seconds left. Life was amazing.
Then coach decided to go for the two-point conversion. I felt like my heart had stopped; I forgot to breathe.
I think of the time between that touchdown and the two-point conversation as six minutes from hell. Zebra was our best trick play. We had practiced it all season and had been saving it up for the right moment. But suddenly all the confidence I’d built in the fourth quarter vanished. Was it really worth going for two? What will all this effort be worth if we don’t get the two-point conversion?
Those next six minutes seemed endless. First, North Central drew an offsides penalty, so we had to change the play. Then we had to call timeout after we almost committed a delay of game.
Then, finally, the play: Wes Chamblee was the primary receiver, but North Central knocked him down. Time seemed to freeze. That play hadn’t been stopped all year and they’d just taken out our primary target. My secondary and third reads were out to my right in a line, and with a defensive end in my face, I had no choice but to throw the ball and hope for the best.
The rest is the moment we’ll never forget (see the video here): the tipped ball by James Kraus and the catch and toe-tap by Brady Young. Brady described it this way after the game: “The play was going to Wes: We were going to throw it in the middle. I'm taking off for the corner of the end zone and I see Burke looking to the outside. He threw the ball to Kraus, who's right on the goal line. My guy goes up and hits Kraus. I saw the ball was coming a little high. I was standing back there waiting on it. I was thinking if this is tipped anywhere, I'm going after it. I'm going to get it. And you know, it tipped right into my hands.”
Sometimes life is so powerful that all you can do is scream with all your might. I yelled every feeling from the game out at once at the 15 yard line. On my run back to the sideline, I was crying, laughing, and screaming with joy.
Earlier in the second half, I had spotted my dad. He had moved down to the track next to the scoreboard because he needed to walk off his nerves. As I trotted back onto the field to line up in Victory formation and kneel the ball, I looked over at him. Dad flashed me a fist pump in front of his chest.
We slew Goliath. We beat the projected national champions. Most important, I made my dad as proud as I have ever seen him. All of the camps he put me through and those teams of mine he’d coached had paid off.
As soon as I took the knee, I ran straight over to my dad and handed him the game ball. I have seen him give in to tears one other time in my life—when his brother died when I was 10. This time they were tears of joy.
My brother came over and told me he had never been so proud of me—this from the brother who pushed me over in driveway basketball, body-slammed me in football, and hit me with fastballs in baseball. Without him, I don’t think I would have developed the physical toughness needed to endure a full game against North Central. It seemed as though all my life’s training and hard work was paying off in one day.
Some refer to our performance that day as the Miracle at Sewell Field. Some say it was the best football game in Wabash history. Those of us who heard Kyle Najar yelling our motto at the top of his lungs at halftime that day like to call it, “Wabash Always Fights.”
Editor's Note: In the 2013 Division III football playoffs, North Central fell 41-40 in the semi-finals to Mount Union, whose quarterback Kevin Burke rallied his team from behind in a style eerily reminiscent of the Little Giants' 2011 comeback. Kevin and Tyler Burke are not related, but you might have a hard time convincing the Cardinals.
Read Howard Hewitt's account of the 2011 game (and see more photos by Hewitt and Drew Casey) here. Burke's story is one of many in the Voices section of the Fall 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine.