When Wisconsin running back Montee Ball hit the spotlight a year ago, national media couldn’t get enough of the fact that at one point, the Heisman finalist was buried at No. 3 on the Badgers’ depth chart.
But there’s another player on UW’s roster who has had a similar story line of success, although it will never receive the glitz and glamour of the Badgers’ 2011 Heisman finalist.
And it’s not just because he’s soft-spoken.
At the conclusion of his redshirt junior season and a few weeks after the 2012 Rose Bowl, walk-on offensive lineman Robert Burge walked into the football coach’s office to tell his coaches he wanted his playing career at Wisconsin to be over.
“I was in the coach’s office telling them ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and I had pretty much made up my mind,” Burge recalled.
“It was just something internal. I didn’t have the drive to play anymore. I wasn’t having fun doing it. It had nothing to do with the team; it had nothing to do with the coaches.”
Burge points out there were no moments during the previous year, no bad performances in games that lessened his desire to continue playing. Instead, it was what he called a “growing” feeling inside.
So, with his team already projected to lose three starting offensive linemen to either the NFL Draft or graduation, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema wasn’t going to let a valuable piece of his returning roster leave without another conversation.
“He was going to not come out for his senior year,” Bielema said. “And myself, actually (now interim offensive line coach) Bart Miller, coach Markson, because he was the O-line coach at the time, sat him down and explained what I thought was out there, what opportunities would be in front of him.”
Burge said the conversation turned him back toward the program.
“They basically told me to reconsider,” Burge said. “There was a spot open on the O-line at right guard. That was obviously a big part of [coming back], them saying that I had a chance to start and contribute.”
“We just kind of explained the rewards and how much he might regret not being out here and the fact that quite honestly he had worked his butt off to be in a position to contribute,” Miller said. “So, with that, it took very little convincing I think.”
And that meeting sparked the transformation of Burge. The guard asked for nutrition advice from head strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert, who recommended he begin incorporating more lean proteins, fruits and vegetables in his diet while cutting out things like pizza and late-night snacks. At the end of the offseason, Bielema said he thinks the guard lost “anywhere from 5 to 10 percent body fat.”
Combined with training his taste buds, Burge received additional help for getting into peak physical condition from assistant strength and conditioning coach Brian Bott.
The dedication was noticeable during fall camp, as Burge battled with Kyle Costigan for the right guard spot. And although he ended up losing the job, the redshirt senior proved to himself and the coaches that if his number was ever called, he would be ready. Heck, Burge even earned a scholarship during fall camp.
Burge’s hard work not only caught the eyes of his coaches, but those of his teammates as well.
Referring to Burge as a “program guy” with great intensity and as a player he loves to be around, starting left tackle Ryan Groy had nothing but praise to offer for his soft-spoken teammate.
“Burge has been in the program a long time,” Groy said. “He’s a physical kid and he worked his butt off to be in the position to contribute like this and he’s done so.”
After veteran left tackle and senior captain Ricky Wagner went down with an injury to the medial collateral ligament in his right knee against Purdue, Groy was forced to slide over to left tackle as Zac Matthias, not Burge, was thrown into the guard spot to replace the rotating Groy.
The move made sense. With Kyle Costigan injured during the season, Matthias had made the start at right guard previously. Thanks to that experience in the starting lineup, Matthias jumped over Burge.
But, this past Saturday against Minnesota, it was Burge who made the start at left guard, rotating with Matthias every few series but eventually playing the entire second half.
“Last game I think he played 59 snaps or so; we rotated him with Zac a little bit but he was up there,” Miller said.
Miller also noted Burge recorded the most knockdowns of any player during the game, totaling 16.
When asked if he spat any trash-talk at center Travis Frederick, the man on the line known for his consistently high digits in the knockdown category, after his performance Saturday, Burge just smirked.
“The whole line played well but it was nice seeing my name at the top of the knockdown list,” Burge admitted. “[Frederick] has been one of our top guys in knockdowns so one of my goals in the last game was to get more than him, more than anyone else and Kyle’s very good at that as well. So, that was nice seeing my name up there. I knew I had the ability to do it, but to actually do that was nice.”
So with Wagner’s status questionable heading into this weekend’s game against Michigan State, there’s a good chance Badger fans will again see Burge in the starting lineup.
And to think there was a chance he wasn’t even going to be on the roster.
“I thought [my career] was done, for sure,” Burge said. “But once I decided to come back, I knew that I had the ability to make [the starting lineup].”
So, was it worth it to come back for his senior year?
“Definitely,” Burge said.