When the opportunity arose to not only vacation in Hawaii, but also play a bowl game that would increase his exposure to college coaches, Sealy Tiger defensive lineman Eric Burns Jr. couldn’t pass it up.
“The location of it in Hawaii and the combination of playing football and being on vacation in Hawaii, you can't beat it,” he said from his home last Thursday evening after returning to Texas earlier that week.
Although the Tigers’ last game of the 2019 season came in 49-0 fashion over the district champion Needville Blue Jays on Nov. 8 at Mark A. Chapman Field in T.J. Mills Stadium, it was at the very beginning of the season that Burns was contacted about the opportunity to play in the Hawaii Tiki Bowl Senior All-Star Game.
“They texted me when we were taking our team pictures and everything in August,” Burns Jr. said. “They texted me saying that they wanted me to come and asked me some questions and then later that day they invited me.”
After some research, the decision was made to venture out to the Pacific islands and, of course, his parents didn’t need much convincing.
“That was a place I had always wanted to go to; it was on my bucket list and I thought I'd never really get there but when I heard he got invited I knew I was going too,” his mother, Venetta, said. “He did us a favor because if it wasn't for him, we would have never gone.”
His father, Eric Burns Sr., however, already made some memories in Hawaii from his time in the Navy.
“We pulled into Pearl Harbor and I hadn't been there in a while, so it was good to go back and experience the civilian side of it because as a sailor, we were restricted to the base,” Burns Sr. said. “The coolest part was that (Eric Jr.) got to do his thing and then his younger brother, Dereon who is in the seventh grade, his favorite movie is ‘Battleship which was filmed over there.”
But, there was still work to be done once the plane wheels touched down and ceremonial leis were gifted to the family, made with real flowers to boot.
“Right when we got off, they put the leis on us, made out of real flowers, and everyone's saying aloha,” Burns Jr. said of the first impression of the island. “(The athletes) all did an Olympic-game style competition, we were split into teams and worked together to win and that was like the first day we were there, so we had just met each other and had to make connections and work together.”
Although he was only one of a handful of Texans who accepted the invite, he knew they all had a step up on the competition simply because of where they played their high school football.
“It was basic to me since I played in Texas where the hardest football is played so I was already ahead of everyone else, I got the plays down quick,” Burns Jr. said. “Some people didn't even know stuff that we learned in junior high and have been doing since then. The names of plays and drills and what to do, they didn't know no drills or anything; they were good but it was just not the same level. To us, it's normal. But for them, if they played in Texas it would be like a different standard.”
It was evident in the games that were played where Burns Jr. contributed a sack and a half and several tackles to the winning efforts of Team Hanohano who took down Team Ikaika, 7-0, and Team Kekoa, 14-7, en route to being crowned Hawaii Tiki Bowl Champions which came with some hardware as well as plenty of bragging rights.
“It was kind of like a tournament, since the other team we were going against lost, we had to win that one to get second place and the next one to get first, so we won both,” Burns Jr. said. “We got a big gold medal and everyone else got either a silver or bronze one so when we got back to the hotel, we definitely bragged a little bit.
“It was really fun, we all went to the pool and stuff and no one really got mad because it was all fun and stuff,” he continued. “We all love the game of football and it was just all fun but we just got to rub it in everyone else's face a little bit extra.”
On top of that, it was two more opportunities to strap up that black helmet with “Tigers” in white font and outlined in gold, bearing his hometown mascot for one last time.
“It was really special to represent my town one last time, it was really cool to wear the helmet again and represent the team and have people watching me all the way from Sealy,” Burns Jr. said.
The biggest takeaway from it all was just how much weight it carried that he ventured from one of the top states in the nation for high school football.
“It's amazing how good Sealy football and Texas football is in general,” Burns Jr. said. “I never realized how good Texas football was until you go out to play other people that aren’t from Texas … Texas football is legit.”
His head coach Shane Mobley agreed that it was an amazing opportunity for Sealy and Texas high school football to be represented in Hawaii.
“If we start looking at high school football in the United States, I think the top three states they always compare to each other are Texas, Florida and California,” Mobley said. “It’s such a great experience, just the opportunity to play the game of football itself; there's so much you learn from it. We’ve got a lot of great things going on right now, but to say, ‘Hey, we have a football player from Sealy, Texas, getting to play in a bowl game in Hawaii, that's huge.’ It is a great honor for our community and our school both to have Eric there in Hawaii representing us.”
Of course, the biggest reason for the trip was to continue driving interest from college coaches and Burns Jr. got full access to a plethora of coaches from the college ranks who provided helpful tips moving forward.
“I got some recruiting ideas, some tips on how to help get recruited and got some more interest in me and so it was definitely a big positive going,” he said.
Since he’s been back, he’s been in close contact with the coaching staff at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene although he’s still got a couple of months before he has to officially decide where he’ll go, already earning offers from McPherson and Bronson Colleges.
In addition, he knows it’s not only about football at the next level, with his eyes set on a business management degree to better his future.
“When I get out I want to be an advertising manager and then work up to start my own business or a little gym or clothing line or something like that,” Burns Jr. said, adding he’ll certainly use plenty of the off-field lessons he learned from the game he loves so much. “Discipline and how you treat people; football teaches you how to be a team player and not to be so selfish. It's OK to worry about yourself and your goals but you've still gotta keep other people in mind while you're doing that.”