The play is a staple of high school football. It’s called the pitch-sweep. In the fall, you can see it run on any field on any Friday night in any town all across America. Student body right: everybody pulls, everybody blocks and everybody runs down the field picking off would-be tacklers while the star running back falls in behind the blockers, making blazing fast, seemingly miraculous, now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t moves, all the way to the end zone.
It’s a good play and always a good bet late in the game, especially if you have a running back like Brian Burrell on your team. He was a “hot prospect” in Maryland, back in the day. Everybody believed in Brian. He was talented, destined for a “free ride” and, perhaps, a big paycheck someday. His dad believed, his high school coaches believed and all the college recruiters believed. Most of all, Brian believed. He believed he could run. Nobody could catch him.
Only on this night, a chilly football Friday in Lanham, Maryland, a little bedroom community thirty miles outside of Washington D. C., something that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened.
When Brian made his first cut to the left, turning up field, an opposing player slipped through the blockers and hit Brian from his blind side, right at the knees. He had no possibility of protecting himself from the hit, of sidestepping the blow or lowering his center of gravity to absorb it. He simply didn’t see it coming.
It wasn’t the hardest hit he had ever taken. It was just completely unexpected. He felt his left knee pop. His leg buckled and he fell helplessly to the ground. His knee was now on fire. He started writhing, rolling left and right holding his knee, twisting, sucking air through a grimace, the way we do when the pain gets close to unbearable.
It happened right in front of the stands, right in front of his father. The roar of the crowd instantly turned into a giant, horrified gasp, then into something like a low, steady, moan. “Ooooo. Ahhhhh. Ohhhh.” As everyone watched the next twenty minutes unfold, moms and dads in the stands held their breath, strangers silently prayed. A few people shouted encouragements, hoping somehow they might soothe. Of course the coaches and all the college recruiters rushed onto the field to see for themselves, but all they could do in the end was close their eyes and shake their heads. Everyone saw the hit. They all knew what it probably meant.
It was only a few weeks later, when Brian and his dad went to a well-known orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Gladden–the same doctor used by the Washington Redskins–that they learned the full extent of the damage. It was bad. Brian had a torn ACL. Dr. Gladden eventually performed the surgery to fix the ligaments, but it was the kind of injury that would mean at least a year of intense rehabilitation. Maybe more. Often, not always, but often, it spells the end of a running back’s career.
It wasn’t the last time Brian ever played football. But it was the last time Brian ever believed he could run. Maybe, somehow, he could still be good, could still play the game, but deep in his soul, he would never again believe.
In fact, after a year and a half of rehab, Brian returned to play football. But by then all the recruiters were gone. The flash, the quickness and the speed were gone. He wasn’t courted, flattered and admired anymore.
Something else happened during that year and a half of rehab. Brian had turned to drugs to medicate his injury. But it wasn’t his knee he had to medicate, it was the injury to his psyche that hurt the worst. He was deeply depressed. He says he lost his identity as an athlete. And so, long after the crutches for his knee were gone, he needed to lean on drugs to get by. Yes, he came back to play, but now he was almost always high, on and off the field.
It was a strange contradiction. He was obsessed with football. He didn’t believe in it anymore, he didn’t believe in himself, but he kept trying to play. He doesn’t know if playing was an effort to please his father, or if it was just some kind of fixation, a compulsion to do the thing that he had always been expected to do. In any case, whenever he played, he felt like a failure.
His on-the-field performance was still good enough to get him a scholarship offer from a small black college. He turned it down because, due to his injury, he was granted an extra year of high school eligibility. He wanted to play it out. He thought he could come back the following year and do better, get a better scholarship. But during his last year of eligibility, he quit the team after only one game. He was out of shape, angry and wasted.
After graduation Brian tried out for a semi-pro team called the Metro Buccaneers. He was good enough to win the starting tailback position, but just before the first game he went on a drug binge. He was terrible. He quit.
In a final humiliation, Brian went to college. He was a walk-on at Bowie State University. He made the team as a punt and kick-off return specialist. But his career that year was undistinguished. He played one season and then dropped out of school.
“I can remember the night the surgeon told me my knee was blown out. I actually felt a little bit of relief because I didn’t have to perform anymore. Every week, from the time I was six years old and my dad first put a football in my hands, a scrawny 65 pound kid, I had to perform, to score at least two touchdowns and rush for 100 yards. It was expected. My dad, the coaches, my teammates, the recruiters, everybody expected it. I honestly felt a twinge of relief.”
Brian was just 16 years old when he tore his ACL. As he looks back on it, he wonders who he really was and what motivated him. His glory days were now a distant dream that had turned into a living nightmare. Crack had become his drug of choice–when he could get it.
He started stealing from his parents. He stole his mother’s VCR. “She was so upset, she tried to kill herself,” he says. While she was in the hospital recovering from the attempt, he stole her wedding ring. His dad had to boot him out of the house.
Brian joined the Navy, served for a year and a half, and was eventually discharged for drug use. In and out of treatment for the next couple of years, he ended up in the psych ward at the county hospital. That’s when he first heard about Teen Challenge.
“I first went to Teen Challenge in Capital Heights, Maryland in 1988. From 1988 to 1994 I was in and out of the program, twice in Capital Heights; once in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania; then Brooklyn, New York; Long Island and even once in Detroit. I always left with unfinished business.”
“Through those years I was also in and out of church; in and out of various rehab centers; in and out of jail. I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior, but somehow I still, stubbornly, did not accept Him as my Lord. I did not want to be a drug addict and an alcoholic, but I didn’t want to give up women, drugs and alcohol completely, either. I wanted to sin ‘just a little bit’.”
It was at this time, in 1994, that Brian was about to be blindsided, again. But blowing out his knee was a minor life event, insignificant, compared to the mind-blowing, life-changing event that was about to happen to him.
In September, after being thrown out by his latest girl friend, Brian got in his car and headed out to sell his new suit for crack money. It was a new suit he had just bought to get a new job. It still had the tags on it.
He didn’t get far. His car suddenly stalled out. “ So I coasted into a little park. I was frustrated, angry and I felt a wave of horrible loneliness and despair come over me. I suddenly saw myself for who I really was, who I had become. I saw, maybe for the first time, how sick I was. I saw all the sin in my life and all the pain I had caused people on the sidelines. Innocent people. I saw how I had broken my father’s heart. I started to cry uncontrollably. I was heaving. I cried out to the Lord. I said, ‘Jesus, please Lord, you have to save me! I can’t live like this anymore’. I told Him, ‘if you save me, I will serve you for the rest of my life.’”
“And that was the last time I ever used drugs.That night, I was changed.”
After that, the first thing Brian did was call Pastor Mike Zello in Brooklyn. Pastor Mike had been working with Teen Challenge ever since Dave Wilkerson started the ministry in New York City.
He begged Pastor Mike to let him back into Teen Challenge once more. He knew it was a long shot. Pastor Mike said no. There was nothing more he could do for Brian, and he hung up on him. Brian prayed. Then he picked up the phone and called Pastor Mike back. This time Pastor Mike said, “Okay, call Pastor Jimmy Jack on Long Island and tell him I sent you.”
Within a week Brian was back in Teen Challenge. This time, though, he finished. He graduated in August the following year. He wore the same suit to graduation that he was going to sell a year earlier, when he was blindsided by God in the stalled car by the side of the road.
Brian has been with the Teen Challenge ministry ever since; faithfully serving in whatever capacity he has been called. He met his wife, Sheila Burrell, who serves as our Director of Women, over the phone while trying to place someone from his home church into the women’s program in Detroit. He fell in love with her voice, her godly character. They dated long distance for a year and then got married. Brian has since gotten his credentials in the Church of God and now serves as the Program Director in Flint.
Brian’s mom and dad were both saved through the Teen Challenge ministry. Pastor Mike Zello led his dad to the Lord in 1988. His wife Sheila led his mother to the Lord just before his father died last year.
Through it all, Brian says, “my dad never lost hope. He helped me through my injury. He loved me even when I hurt him. He never gave up on me. Near the end, when he was dying, he used to call me and want to talk. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to get to the phone because I’d be in a meeting. When I would call back, he would answer the phone and shout, ‘Hey everybody, it’s Pastor Brian!” He was very proud of me.
He died at peace with God and with Brian. At the funeral Brian walked to his casket and tucked his preaching Bible up under his father’s arm. It was a hand-off, a final football gesture, as if to say, “You got this, Dad. The enemy can never catch us now. Home free.”