Purdue’s Burton stayed patient, then shined for the Boilermakers

Grandpa would have been proud.

Austin Burton has stuck it out on the Purdue football roster for three years, barely playing, always behind someone, or someones, on the depth chart. Until last Saturday.

Aidan O’Connell woke up lame on the day the Boilermakers were scheduled to play Florida Atlantic and coach Jeff Brohm perused the roster and anointed Burton as the designated quarterback to stand in for the Big Ten’s leading passer.

“As the week went on, I had a better feeling I was probably going to play,” Burton said. “Not too many nerves going crazy.”

Burton, who also spent two years at UCLA, where he started one game in what must seem like a decade ago, and one more along the way for Purdue, was suddenly the man of the moment because O’Connell was now going to watch in street clothes.

Burton’s grandfather was Ron Burton, the first player ever drafted by the Boston Patriots when the American Football League was born in 1960. The older Burton was a star runner for Northwestern, where he twice was All-Big Ten and also an All-American. There is a famous, somewhat goofy photo of Burton on draft day that has always floated around Boston, him holding up a No. 1 jersey to signify his first-round selection, but also wearing a helmet without face mask, but with a broad smile.

Burton played for the Boston Patriots, pre-designation as New England’s team, until 1965. He was a 5-foot-10 inch, 190-pound runner and a popular figure with the team, a solid player who rushed for 1,536 yards and caught 111 passes.

He passed away from cancer in 2003 at age 67 while still living in Massachusetts where one son worked in public relations for the Boston Red Sox, one was a television reporter and a third a local TV sports director. Austin, who is biggest, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, was only in elementary school when his grandfather died.

Steve Burton, TV sports director, was once a quarterback for Northwestern, following his dad to the Chicago school. Veronica Burton, Austin’s sister, was a first-round pick for the Dallas Wings in the WNBA. She also went to college at Northwestern. Lots of athletic genes in the family.

Veronica and Austin both attended my old high school in the Boston suburbs, Newton South. Oh, and when I was a kid I possessed several years’ worth of Ron Burton’s football cards from the early 1960s.

Austin may have been required to show more patience than anyone else in the family, but he had the bonafides when he took his first snap against Florida Atlantic.

O’Connell himself only emerged as a regular last season after waiting half a decade. I’m surprised O’Connell didn’t limp out onto the field at Ross-Ade Stadium propped up by a lineman on each side to cling to playing time.

This became Burton’s show, except for one series directed by another backup, Michael Alaimo. Burton did not play like a rookie and made the clutch plays when needed, throwing three touchdown passes to give the Boilermakers a 28-26 victory.

You could call it a long-awaited moment in the sun, even if the game was played under lights. O’Connell provided little tips, as needed, along the sideline and it was all just enough to win.

Burton was also much aided by throwing the ball receiver Charlie Jones’ way. Jones is a sixth-year collegian who transferred from Iowa to Purdue after being overshadowed, at least partially because he has known O’Connell since childhood.

Jones, with 41 catches, the leading receiver in the Big Ten, made do with Burton the other day instead, but that was OK. They are roommates. Burton laughed and said Jones is apparently a gambler covering the angles on his bets.

“Charlie played the quarterback game pretty well,” Burton joked.

Burton played the football game pretty well. It is impossible to know what comes next, when O’Connell will return, if Burton will have day as he did versus Florida Atlantic against tougher Big Ten teams, or not.

Perhaps this will ignite something and one day there will also be an Austin Burton football card out there for young collectors.

Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]