By now, most people know about offensive tackle Michael Oher and his path to the NFL, thanks to the Oscar-winning movie, The Blind Side. But there are similar stories told every year leading up to the NFL draft.
Philadelphia Eagles receiver, and St. Louis native, Jeremy Maclin was from a broken home with a single, alcoholic mother before he was taken in by an affluent Kirkwood family. Maclin became a first-round pick for the Eagles in the 2009 NFL draft. Oher was taken four picks later, 23rd overall, by the Baltimore Ravens. After helping Baltimore win a Super Bowl after the 2012 season, Oher left the Ravens earlier this year to join the Tennessee Titans.
Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson is looking forward to providing financial support for his mother and six siblings once he receives his NFL paycheck. Robinson could be the second overall draft pick in May’s NFL draft, but there is a lesser known player who gave thanks to a non-family member for helping him get to college and now on the verge of making his NFL dreams come true.
Fresno State wide receiver Isaiah Burse has a background comparable to Oher and Maclin – a poor home life before he was taken in by one of his football coaches as an adopted son.
|Former Fresno State receiver Isaiah Burse
Mark Dobbins, who was an assistant football coach at Modesto Christian School in Modesto, Calif., and ran the training service Full Ride Athlete, welcome Burse into his family after he learned of Burse’s fragile personal life.
“I didn’t have the greatest support system,” Burse said last month at the NFL combine. “He helped me, him and his wife. I actually stay with them a lot. He was a big influence on my life.
“He was a dude who trained local kids,” Burse explained. “He trained me and it started off, you know, with him just training me kind of deal. But me and him developed a great relationship and good bond. He became like a father to me, him and his wife both, like a father and a mother. I’ve got my own room there and everything, so when I go back to Modesto, I go to their house. It’s like they’re my parents, pretty much.”
Dobbins and his wife, Michelle, think of Burse as their son.
“He’s been a blessing in our life,” Mark Dobbins said in a phone interview. “He’s one of those kids you like to be around.
“He’s an engaging person and there’s an honesty about him. He’s not at all pretentious about who he is.”
Dobbins’ nickname for Burse is “Magic” because of the 1971 movie Brian’s Song. The film, starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams is about the real-life relationship between former Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. When Piccolo is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the friendship between the two becomes even stronger. Piccolo’s nickname for Sayers, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, was “Black Magic.”
“I told Isaiah, ‘That’s what I’m going to call you, man, because you’re just magic on the field,’” Dobbins recalled. “He would do things in high school that would blow your mind.”
Burse played both ways for the Crusaders and led his team to a 15-0 season and the CIF Small School state championship as a senior. As the team’s quarterback, Burse finished the season with 1,771 passing yards passing and 27 touchdowns and rushed for 1,826 yards on 195 carries with 26 touchdowns. As a linebacker, the 6-foot, 187-pound Burse recorded 90 tackles with seven sacks and five interceptions. That earned him the accolades of Max Preps Small School State Player of the Year, the Modesto Bee’s Player of the Year and the 2009 Sac Joaquin Section MVP. During his high school career, Burse rushed 545 times for 4,003 yards and 61 touchdowns and threw for 6,890 yards with 87 touchdowns.
“He showed a lot of leadership ability with his skills,” Dobbins said. “He’s a quiet, humble kid who led by example.”
Because of his parents’ own issues, Burse bounced around from family member to family member before finally settling with his great aunt and then with the Dobbins following Burse’s sophomore year of high school.
“I knew who he was because his name had grown around the area,” Dobbins said. “I got in touch with him and we started working out.”
Not only did Dobbins help Burse become a better football player, his program also placed an emphasis on making good life decisions.
“I became closer to him because of his situation,” Dobbins said. “It was just not good at his house most of the time. So, basically he’d find himself at our house. We have a son who was already grown up and out of the house. We had plenty of room for him, so we took him in. We loved who he was and just embraced him.”
Burse’s parents, Tommy Burse and Terri Hoffman, were unstable. Hoffman lives in Arizona and isn’t involved in her son’s life. Tommy Burse attended games, but is a humble man who doesn’t say much, according to Dobbins. The 22-year-old Burse has a sister, Stephanie, and two brothers named Aaron and Terrell. Burse will graduate in May with a degree in criminology corrections and credits the Dobbins family and his brother, Aaron, for helping him get to where he is today.
Aaron, whose nickname is Buki, has his own child now. But neither Isaiah Burse nor his siblings had it easy as children. Even after Isaiah left for college, he returned to his aunt’s house for spring break during his freshman year and was told there was no room for him there. That’s when he ended up at the Dobbins’ house and why, today, he considers that his home.
“She’d tell him, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to sleep or what you’re going to eat because I didn’t know you were coming,’” the 52-year-old Dobbins explained. “That’s when he’d just say, OK, and call me. Ever since then, he’s made that his home and it’s his mailing address.”
When Burse had trouble getting a ride to school during his freshmen and sophomore years of high school, he would call Dobbins for a ride. At the time, Dobbins was working at another school. He quit his job to gain employment at Modesto Christian so he could give Burse a ride to school on a regular basis.
“I would pick him up every morning to make sure he was on time for first period,” said Dobbins, who is also a retired UPS worker and taught Burse how to change a tire on a car. “He wanted that. He hated being late. It bothered him. And it worked out for me.”
Michelle Dobbins, who is an accountant, has been the go-between between Burse and his agent, Jim Ivler. She has advised her adopted son on financial matters and cautioned him against giving family members handouts. Burse’s only plans with his rookie contract, which will be limited as a likely late-round pick, are to buy a new Honda Accord and rent his own apartment.
“He’s got to save that money,” Dobbins said. “He just can’t be giving it out to family members who will ask and they will. I already know who they are, the ones that will. He’s going to tell them to talk to his agent about finances. And his agent will tell him that it’s Isaiah’s money because he’s the one who earned it.
“He loves his family, but he knows that they’re different,” Dobbins added. “When he needs things to be serious and taken care of, he comes to Michelle and I. But he still visits his family. That’s his family and it is what it is. That’s just what he got. He loves them and likes to spend time with them.”
At Fresno State, Burse caught 209 passes for 2,503 yards – including 99 receptions for 1,023 yards as a senior. He hauled in six touchdown passes in each of his junior and senior seasons and finished his career with 15 receiving touchdowns. He was also a dynamic return specialist and finished his career with nearly 6,000 all-purpose yards and 22 total touchdowns. Fresno State teammate Davante Adams, who is considered one of the better NFL draft prospects, said Burse is a player who could get overlooked and wind up as a steal in May’s draft.
While Burse isn’t regarded a top prospect, he did shine at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, where he was coached by Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner. Burse said the former San Diego Chargers receiver taught Burse how to be a better student of the game.
“In his heart, he’s very thankful of everything,” Dobbins said. “He’s very savvy of who cares about him.”
Burse would love a Fresno State reunion in New Orleans, where former Rams receiver and Fresno State great Henry Ellard is the Saints receivers coach. Burse would also welcome the opportunity to play in Denver, where Wes Welker, one of the players Burse models his game after, plays.
“If the Broncos decided to draft me, as soon as I get there, Welker, I’d try to pick his brain instantly from the moment I touch down,” Burse said. “Get in the playbook and just learn from him, become a human sponge and just soak in all the knowledge he’s got and how he’s been so successful and how I can be successful. Hopefully I can do what he does, maybe better.”
Dobbins deflects any credit Burse give him, saying, “Isaiah blazed his own trail by making the right decisions.”
“I didn’t follow him around 24/7, and he made decisions that were best for him,” Dobbins said. “He is clean as a whistle. He has nothing negative in his past. Not one person has said anything negative about him. He’s never been in trouble with the law, never been in trouble with anybody, loves to help people out and loves helping kids.
“Where he comes from and who he is now is amazing. There are people who come better situations who don’t do as well as he’s done. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you want and who you surround yourself with. He’s surrounded himself with people who care about him and he made that decision himself. It’s one of those stories where a kid comes from nothing and makes something of himself. I’m really proud of him. Hopefully he gets to continue to play football somewhere.”
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