Kaelin Burnett had been
waiting for this moment,
this opportunity his entire
“It was going to be my
time,” the Nevada Wolf Pack defensive end said this
week. “Everything I wanted was right there in front of
me. Everything I worked for was right there for me.”
Now a senior, Burnett was finally getting the chance to
become a full-time starter for the Wolf Pack football
team. He was also going to walk across a stage, collect
his diploma and graduate in front of family and friends
at the end of the following month. The kid who grew up
just minutes from the magic kingdom and fantasy world
of Disneyland in Southern California was clearly in the
happiest place on earth last spring.
Life, though, rarely is as carefree as a Disney movie.
The next thing Burnett knew he was laying on the ground
wondering if his dreams had just come crashing down to
earth along with his left hip.
“I couldn’t get up,” Burnett said. “I knew it was serious.”
This was not supposed to be the way his dream season
began. Not on a practice field in April, not against his
own teammates, not before it really even started.
Not now. Especially not now.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” said Burnett
as he finished a grueling practice with his teammates
this week in preparation for the Wolf Pack’s game at
Boise State on Saturday. “It was April 8. It was a Friday.
We were out here (on the Pack’s practice field) during
And, as usual, he was having the time of his life.
“Kaelin Burnett loves this game,” Wolf Pack defensive
ends coach Ken Wilson said. “He’s the type of guy who
during our Friday walk-throughs, he’s jumping over the
pile trying to make a tackle.”
That’s all he was doing. Playing the game he loves with a
bunch of teammates he loves for the school he loves.
On a Friday in April.
“I went up in the air to knock down a screen pass,”
Burnett said. “I got pushed in the air and landed on my
The doctors later told him the crack in the right side of
his pelvis looked as if he had been knocked off a raging
“They told me they had never seen it before from a
football injury,” Burnett said. “It was split open
(vertically) all along the side. They said it was the type of
injury rodeo cowboys usually get after they get knocked
off a horse or bull.”
So much for that magical senior year. Burnett was told
his football career was likely over.
“It was a tough, tough 48 hours or so, sitting in the
hospital with him, talking with him,” Wilson said. “His
family was all out of town and couldn’t get there until
the next day so as a coach you are there with him.
“That was a real tough time for him. But it really wasn’t
about football at that moment. We were just worried
about the young man. He was in such pain. He didn’t
know if his career was over. There were just a lot of
One of the unknowns, it turns out, was Burnett’s
character and drive. Yes, the doctors knew he had a
rodeo cowboy crack in his pelvis. What they didn’t know
was what else was inside Kaelin Burnett.
“I got so much support from my family, my teammates,
my coaches, everyone,“ Burnett said. “They kept me
He needed all of them more than he could tell them.
“I was so down,” he said. “I thought my career was over,
that I couldn’t play the game I loved so much anymore.
But everyone was so positive. They got me to believe I
could overcome this. I had everyone in my corner.”
If this was a Disney movie, a beautiful princess would
have walked into his hospital room, kissed him as he
slept with a backdrop of cheerful blue jays flying about
and chirping a happy song. And the hip and pelvis would
have magically healed.
It didn’t happen that way.
“It took a lot of prayer, a lot of vitamins and a lot of
rest,” Burnett said. “There were points along the way
when I did think my career was over. I was talking to my
coaches about possibly getting a medical red-shirt year
in case I could come back next year.”
Burnett, to be sure, has never expected his life to be a
Disney fairytale. This is a young man, after all, whose
father died before he was born. He grew up amidst drug
use and gang violence just outside Los Angeles.
When he was 5-years-old, his mother packed up her
family and moved everyone in with an uncle in nearby
Fontana, Calif., just to escape the gang violence and
danger during the riots in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s.
Yes, Disneyland was minutes away, but that wasn’t Main
Street, USA outside his front door.
“Growing up in L.A. is tough,” Burnett said. “There’s a lot
of drugs, a lot of gang violence, a lot of things to hurt
you. There are so many routes you can go with your
Many of those routes, Burnett learned, can lead a young
man into places he doesn’t belong. Burnett, though,
learned a valuable lesson early in life, a lesson he will
carry with him the rest of his days.
“It is so easy to do wrong in life and so hard to do right,”
Burnett has always been one to take the difficult path.
That’s why, above all else this past spring, he refused to
let a split pelvis destroy his dreams. And it certainly
wasn’t going to keep him from getting that diploma he
worked so hard to earn.
“Oh, I walked across that stage and got my diploma,”
Burnett said, his face lighting up with a huge smile.
“Actually, I didn’t walk. I had two crutches with me going
across that stage. But I got it.”
After that, well, anything was possible.
“For two months I was like a car with two flat tires,” said
Burnett, describing the aftermath of his surgery in April.
“I could barely walk, let alone run. And it was horrible
because I love to run.”
By the middle of June, he was running. Less than two
months later he was running after quarterbacks once
again on the practice field.
“That’s when I knew it was a possibility I could play this
year,” he said. “When I could run. You can’t play this
game unless you can run. After that it was just a matter
of taking care of my body.”
Sometimes, it seems, Disney movies do come true.
Burnett somehow beat the odds, returned from his
career-threatening injury in time for the start of
practices in early August and has started all three of the
Pack’s games this year.
“He’s been through a lot,” Wilson said. “He had shoulder
surgery (in 2008) and got through that. He never flinched
when that happened and he didn’t flinch this time
There is no time to flinch, after all, when you are chasing
That’s what he was taught his entire life by his mother
(Debraka Griffin) and his older brother Kevin, a seven-
year veteran in the National Football League with the
Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers and now Miami
“Those are the two people who have had the biggest
influence in my life,” said Burnett, flashing that smile
once again. “Those two are my role models.”
The 28-year-old Kevin is 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, about an
inch shorter and 15 pounds heavier than the 22-year-old