Student-athlete’s yard-work deal brings former Chief to Maranatha football camp
First-year head football coach Bryan Burdette has had an eye on Maranatha Christian Academy for longer than they've had a football team.
While living in Pittsburg and coaching high school in southeastern Kansas, he would visit family in the Shawnee area and there he spotted the school while it was still in its infancy.
“I knew of the North Campus because we drove by it all the time," he said. "I told my wife that if they had a high school and a football program, I think that’s something I’d like to get involved in.”
Later, almost serendipitously, he received an email about Maranatha's vacant coaching position for the upcoming season and jumped on the offer.
After a few weeks of weight training, Monday was the first day of Burdette's middle and high school camp. Even after just a couple days, it has been a big change for the returning players.
Junior linebacker/fullback Max Flint said Burdette's knowledge of football and his experience with smaller schools have given the team an edge it never had last season.
“We had no drive to work hard," he said, "so that was obviously difficult."
So far in Burdette's camp, the attendance has hovered around the Eagles roster count last season, up to 20 athletes, which is a good sign considering that some are away on mission trips or working. The coaches are also trying to keep the junior high players involved and prevent a season cancellation like last year.
To help matters, the Eagles are getting some assistance from some local NFL veterans — for a price.
Sophomore Sam Welch, a neighbor to former Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan Lilja, left a flyer on his mailbox saying that if Lilja helped his team for a few days, he would return the favor by doing his yardwork for the entire summer.
The gesture seemed sincere and selfless. This was a kid trying to help his team and school, not himself.
"I respected that," Lilja said. "He's done a good job with my yard, so now I have to come out here and do a good job teaching these guys how to play a little bit."
Lilja also invited former NFL and Kansas State lineman Nick Leckey to join, though both have had trouble finding time. Leckey, who missed Monday and Tuesday, and his wife had a baby a couple days before camp started. Lilja's wife is expecting her second child this weekend, if not sooner.
Still, he came down to share his advice.
"Being around these kids makes it a lot of fun for me," Lilja said. "I try to help them with some of the little techniques and the fundamentals, but they've got good coaches. They'll learn how to play the game. I just want to tell them to just enjoy yourselves, man."
From the X's and O's standpoint, this is the first time Burdette has had to start from scratch with a team. His 20 years coaching football between South East, Frontenac and Galena High Schools all had similar offenses, so it wasn't much of a change.
"I know that some things are going to take time, just to develop attitudes and work hard," Burdette said. "Just to compete. That’s where we want to get right now: confident and competing.”
But this is a new culture. Expectations are different. Burdette has brought in more competitive philosophy and maybe his pairing with the Eagles will be what they need to establish a successful foundation. Just the mere presence of a former NFL player has to count for something.
Players like Flint had to go through a 0-5 season last year. As a team, they are enjoying the bonding time and trying to make the experience as fun as possible. But it's all just means to an end.
"We're expecting wins," Flint said.
Lilja enjoying retirement
Ryan Lilja has been recovering from knee and toe surgeries since retiring at the end of last season, but he's still had time to experience the simple life.
Without the heinous NFL schedule weighing him down, Lilja has had time to golf, fish and spend time with family while awaiting its newest addition. Until this week's camp at Maranatha, Lilja said it's been quite a while since he has seen a football field. But it was invigorating for him as much as it was them.
"I don't know if I'll coach or get involved with football in any way, but if I do, it'll be around this age, high school and middle school."
That's assuming he's done as a player. As for the Chiefs and their need for veteran offensive linemen, Lilja hasn't completely ruled it out either.
"If they call, I'll listen," he said. "But right now, I'm focused on my family and trying to physically get healthy. I haven't completely closed the door on football but it was time for me to kind of move on."