Comcast SportsNet anchor Ron Burke’s life forever changed on one random encounter in 1980 with his biology teacher in the hallway of George Wythe High School in Richmond, VA.
It was then when Burke’s life had purpose. It was then when Burke believed in himself and followed his dreams.
That was the message Burke, 48, brought to students at Pennbrook Middle School Wednesday afternoon on the final day of Black History Month.
“Everybody has a story that belongs to you,” Burke said. “Own it. Take it and make it the best you can. You make your own future.”
Burke is friends with the family of ninth-grader Danielle Sommerville. He said he came to Pennbrook to tell a little bit about what is story was all about, so that it may help students understand one person’s story.
“It’s no accident how I got here today,” Burke said.
He hoped his story would craft a future for students that is enriching to them and rewarding to them, and eventually help someone down the way.
Burke said his 26-year journey had many pockets to it.
In seventh grade, Burke had no clue what he wanted to do.
“I didn’t think I would end up on someone’s big screen some day,” Burke said. “It’s amazing to me how episodes in your life can change your life forever.”
The year was 1980 and Burke was in his senior year of high school. The clock was ticking and time was running out to decide on a future. He needed a landing spot, and Burke came from a home where neither parent finished college.
In high school, Burke, who eventually graduated from James Madison University, was a second baseman on the school baseball team – a position that Burke called “the best position. You have to think and act on every play. You are responsible for something.”
Burke toyed with playing baseball beyond high school, but there were no scholarship offers.
“It was a dream that didn’t have much base to it,” he said.
Then, on what Burke called an ordinary day, he was changing classes and his tenth-grade biology teacher approached him in the hallway.
“You know the homecoming game is coming up. We need boys for the Homecoming King contest,” Burke said his teacher said to him. At Burke’s school, they held a talent show for Homecoming King and Queen.
When his teacher asked him, Burke thought to himself, “Is she crazy? I’ve seen talent shows and that’s not for me.”
“I opened my mouth and the only word that came out was ‘yes.’ I thought, ‘What have you done? You have no talent?’ That’s what I believed about myself,” he said. “Opportunity tapped; it didn’t come knocking hard. I could have said ‘no’ and it changed my life forever.”
Burke was the boy with no talent who gave it a shot.
On the bus ride home, Burke’s answer went around and around in his head.
“Then, a light goes off like that,” he said. “I decided I know what I can do.”
It didn’t involve singing or dancing or reciting poetry.
Burke had an older brother and he remembered a 45 record he had of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“If I find that record, I find a way through this thing,” he said.
He put on the record and wrote down the speech word for word.
“I think I can recite this speech in the contest, I said to myself. I think I can,” he said. “Between third and fourth period I had no talent. Here it is, the afternoon, and I started writing these words. My intention was to do the best job I can.”
Burke was determined not just to do the best he can – he wanted to win.
“I had the talent the whole time,” he said.
Burke stood on that stage in front of the school and recited the speech word for word. He did it more than once through the competition. He received a standing ovation each time.
“Everybody in the crowd rose up. It was the most unbelievable rush,” he said. “I said it was a done deal. I’m winning this thing.”
That he did. Burke ended up being crowned Homecoming King of George Wythe High School.
“In two weeks, I went from no talent to talent. How does that happen? It was always there,” he said. “My story is about understanding something that was always there.”
Burke didn’t miss that small tap. He said yes that day.
“If I said ‘no’ that day, I would not be standing here today. I would not have a career that is immensely rewarding to me,” he said.
Burke compared our individual choices to molding a different piece of clay every day.
“I think even though this is one man’s story, there are elements that can help you as a seventh grader,” Burke said. “Everybody in this room has a story. This is my after; the before is what got me here.”
Burke, who worked as a sportscaster for NBC10 for eight years, said that one encounter 32 years ago helped start a story that is still being written.
Each student too has a story that is still being written, he said.
“If you take the proper approach and experience rewards along the way, keep going because you know you do this because it is important to you,” Burke said. “When you believe great things, great things result from it.”
Burke held a Q&A with students after his presentation. Here’s a rundown of the questions and answers:
Who’s the most down-to-earth athlete in Philly?
“I’ve spent 24 years in Philly. I’ve had overwhelming positive relationship with all of them. I think very highly of a lot of them.”
What Philly sports team do you like the best?
“I’ve done a lot of work with the Sixers over the years.”
What is your work schedule?
“I work until 1:45 a.m. All work is done in the evenings. I’m the morning host, but it airs at 6 a.m. on tape. We tape it at 1 a.m. I work 7 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. I don’t think my body could handle a 9 to 5 job.”
What would you be doing if you said ‘no’ to your teacher?
“I’ve thought about that a lot. Had I not gone to college, I would have probably gone to the Marines. I like their uniforms; I thought they were cool.”
Who’s your favorite baseball player?
“I like Jimmy Rollins. He’s fun.”
What’s your favorite sport to report?
“I like to report on football the best.”
What do you think about the Flyers?
“The Flyers need a goaltender. They’ve needed one for a long time. Over the course of 82 games in the season and post-season, you’re seeing their weaknesses exposed as it goes on.”