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Football: Burlage Blitz

Randolph defensive lineman Austin Burlage goes after the ball carrier during the Rockets’ practice last Wednesday in Randolph. (Republican Eagle photo by Kyle Stevens)

RANDOLPH – Austin Burlage stands behind the offense. The Randolph Rockets football team is going through Wednesday practice last week, running plays in preparation for Grand Meadow. Austin kneels. Austin stands. Austin shuffles behind his teammates.

This makes taking a clear photo difficult, but idle is not Austin’s default gear.

Austin Burlage has been blitzed by life. Like a high school JV line against the Minnesota Vikings defense, Austin never had a chance. But don’t tell that to Austin. Or his mom. Or his brother. Or his coach.

Austin Buralge belongs.

A shining star

Austin had spoke but three words by the time he was 3 years old. “Pot,” “ma” and “hi.” And “pot” was actually a carbonated beverage.

“There was the divorce, and then his sister, she died 5 years ago this November,” said Dawn, Austin’s mom. The words dropped like a bomb, but she left her questioner hanging, applauding Austin’s jog to the other side of the field.

Two records

Two years ago, Austin needed an outlet. More than football, Austin needed a way to exert something, anything, everything. So the young man started lifting weights. A lot of weights. And now, Austin, a junior, No. 75, has the school record in both the bench press and the the front squat. That’s 250 and 345 pounds, respectively.

And he looks like it.

By appearance, Austin is a fire hydrant of a nose tackle, arms and legs thick like oak trees. By demeanor, Austin is a rose, delicate, thorny.

When head coach Chris Stanton called Austin to take his position on the defensive line, Austin took his place, opposite his brother, Mason, a sophomore.

“Let’s just say we have a friendly competition going on,” Austin said.

Moments prior, Mason dove into Austin’s legs. Austin landed on top of his younger brother, knees on his back. Austin lingered there for a good 10 seconds. “The only thing on the ground were my hands,” Austin said. “He didn’t get me to the ground.”

Grace

Grace, Austin and Mason’s little sister, died six days short of her eighth birthday. Her memorial was held on the day her year turned over. “It’s been getting better,” Austin said, passing the question like being asked about a sprained ankle.

“She was his angel.” Dawn said. “She meant everything to him.”

Focus

How much Austin plays this year is up to Stanton. By his own admission, the coach is unsure of when to play his burly junior who has autism. Oh, yes, Austin is autistic. There is no outward appearance that the Rocket is without GPS. Talking with Austin is another matter.

He obsesses on superheroes, math (or gym class), second-hand stores, Star Wars and, especially, fun.

And that’s where Wednesday’s practice ended, with fun. Austin described a game, it had familiar elements to his teammates’, but also some new twists. Either way, it was a way to condition that wasn’t rote sprints or dull laps. It was Ultimate Football, one of five games that Austin has concocted for those dreary Wednesday afternoons.

Taking a break in the action, Randolph defensive lineman Austin Burlage chats with Rockets head coach Chris Stanton.“His freshman year, we weren’t sure where to play him,” Stanton said. “So he was kind of restless. Last year, he approached me about doing something fun on Wednesdays. We’re usually done early on Wednesdays, and it’s the middle of the week, and it breaks things up. So we talked about what to do, and his teammates loved it, and it really helped them accept him as a teammate.”

A mother, only

Austin was diagnosed at age 6. Dawn said the outcome reassured her, “because I finally knew what it was. But it’s hard to have an autistic kid. But I’m blessed to have him. He has a heart made of gold.”

Told she was a saint for finding a way through so much tragedy, Dawn deflected, exposing where Austin inherited his bright soul.

“No,” Dawn said, “I’m just a mom.”

Mid-week

There are five exercises that Austin dreamed up with Stanton: Ultimate Football, King of the Field, Rocket Chase, Dummy Chase and Burlage Blitz — Stanton’s nod to the whole shebang. Most of the games are familiar by name, but the one given a name of the child inventor is truly something else.

“It’s a regular football game,” Austin explains, “but there are obstacles. To score, you have to jump a (tackling) dummy, or go through the dummy. And when you get to the end zone, you have to dive through a (tractor) tire, and someone has to be moving it.”

Imagining that conjures all kinds of fun.

The future

That’s where everything about Austin begins and ends: fun.

In addition to Batman (a favorite, because he’s “a creature of the night,”) and Superman and Star Wars, Austin loves to cook. A steak dinner last year stands out. There are the Lego pieces that number in the thousands, a love of Storage Wars and the desire to make a living off of antiques.

Dawn simply beams when Austin is around and, when he tangles with Mason, she overflows that her two sons are battling. She admits there is little knowledge of football in her own mind, but what she sees from her sons, in her first in-person practice, is astounding. She’s always pointing the boys out, commenting on what they just did. There is no mention of what lies ahead.

There are job coaches lined up for whatever comes after Austin completes high school. There are teammates and coaches that help Austin assimilate. If not for a small town, where change is gradual at its fastest, Austin might never have had the chance to explode off the line, into the chin of his brother, to fight into the backfield only to stand up and look around for a cue.

That is Austin’s world. It’s clear from afar, confusing the closer you get.

Whatever is racing through Austin’s mind is probably simpler than what one digests after meeting him. Following his train of thought requires his focus, not your notions. His compulsions are hit and miss, his anger explodes and fades faster than a firework.

But his handshake, his smile, his conviction, they are all true.

Austin Berlage has been blitzed. But he’s already stood up and moved on to the next great thing he’ll do.

Kyle Stevens
Kyle Stevens is a sports reporter for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, Kyle worked at the Owatonna People’s Press, as well as KWLM and KLFN in Willmar. You can contact Kyle by phone at (651) 301-7879, via e-mail at kstevens@republican-eagle.com, and follow him on Twitter @RE_KStevens.
(651) 301-7879
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