MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Aubrey Burks first knew something was wrong when he couldn’t squeeze the trainer’s hand, and the tears began to flow.
Burks was the first man to make contact with TCU punt returner JoJo Earle on an awkward muffed-punt return inside the Horned Frogs’ 10-yard line in the second quarter of September’s WVU-TCU game. He was in perfect position to make a play, and he did, but he believes his form was something football coaches preach against at all levels of football.
“I’m not taught to tackle like that,” Burks said. “[You are supposed to] always have your head up, and I came in and my neck was kind of tilted a little bit, and that’s probably what caused it.”
Upon review of the play, his assessment seems highly self-critical. He gets into an athletic position to make a tackle, but Earle delivers the blow himself, and two of Burks teammates land on top of him in the ensuing pile up.
It was a rapid sequence of massive collisions that left Burks motionless on the field, and he remained there for roughly eight minutes as he received medical attention before being taken off the field in a neck brace via stretcher.
“I was definitely scared,” he said. “[That was] probably one of the scariest injuries I’ve had in my career playing football. Once I hit the ground, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know how bad it was. Once I heard the training staff coming over, they was telling me [to] squeeze their hand, and I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have much feeling in my hand. Once I heard they needed to get the stretcher I knew it was something bad.”
A crew of medical personnel and WVU assistant director of sports medicine Zach Foster accompanied the WVU safety to a nearby hospital in Fort Worth. He received a flurry of tests while still in the neck brace as his team continued a gritty battle against the reigning College Football Playoff runner-up in TCU.
Foster tried keeping Burks informed on the game, but the junior wasn’t feeling it.
“I heard about the first blocked field goal,” Burks said. “And then the game kept going, and I said, ‘Zach, please be quiet. I don’t want to hear nothing else about the game, just tell me if we won or lost.’
“Then probably like five minutes later, he’s like, ‘You got a buddy that’s joining you.’ I was like, ‘Who?’ He was like, ‘Trey Lathan.’ That’s when I heard what happened to him.”
To make matters worse, Lathan had suffered a serious leg injury in the second half of the same game, and now two of WVU’s key defensive players demanded serious medical attention.
The game continued, and WVU produced one of its best halves of football all season by shutting out the Horned Frogs in the second half on the way to a 24-21 lead. In the game’s final seconds, WVU blocked its second field goal of the game to secure its second-straight Big 12 win to open the conference season.
Foster delivered the news, and Burks’ mood finally swung back.
“I kind of wanted to jump up,” he said. “But then I realized where I was at and what I was going through, so I kind of had to be happy, and just lay down and be happy about it.”
Burks and Lathan stayed together at the hospital overnight and returned to Morgantown the following Tuesday. Lathan underwent season-ending surgery to repair his leg injury, but doctors deemed that Burks did not suffer any damage outside of a concussion.
Following the TCU game, WVU had a short idle week before a Thursday night game in Houston. Burks used that time to rest and recover his mental state following the injury. Less than 20 days after he was carted off the field in Fort Worth, he was cleared to resume football activities.
The road back to participation is a strange one following a head or neck injury. Once a player clears concussion protocol, most of the rehab is mental, and it can be hard to return the brain to a contact-friendly mindset following an injury like Burks’.
That first hit back in practice can seem like a daunting task.
“It’s just something I got to do,” he said. “I got to go tackle somebody just so I can get the feeling of hitting again, and once I got the feeling of that, I was fully ready to go.”
“If I’m on the field hesitant about tackling or hesitant about putting my head in there again, that means that I shouldn’t be out there [and] I need to take some more time off,” he added. “[But] I don’t think it’s a concern at all.”
By the time WVU’s home matchup against Oklahoma State came around, Burks was back in the starting lineup. He has recorded 11 tackles and two pass breakups in three games since the incident at TCU.
But Burks – as his teammates and coaches know him – truly returned to form in last week’s 37-7 win over BYU. He tallied three tackles and a forced fumble – one that he also recovered – for WVU’s lone takeaway of the game.
The head honcho was back.
“You can ask a couple guys on our team and the coaching staff, I do practice that at practice,” he said. “Earlier [Monday], Coach Scott came up to me and was like, ‘About time you did that to the other offense.’ So that was a funny moment.”
Six weeks after the injury, Burks’ life is pretty much back to normal, and his production is as high as it’s been all year. WVU head coach Neal Brown even said that the BYU game was Burks’ and fellow-safety Anthony Wilson’s best game together at WVU “without question.”
The effects of a traumatic experience like Burks’ come and go, but so does his perspective on his life and his career.
“[I am] just happy to be here, blessed, thankful for the people in this building, the support system I have at home with my family [and] the support system I have here,” Burks said. “Now that I’m playing, I’m just excited to keep playing [and] moving forward.”