Extreme adversity accelerates maturation of Steelers' Burns

PITTSBURGH -- Artie Burns has found a football fan club in an unusual location: the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina.

Artie Burns Sr. has been telling fellow inmates about his son's football ascension, and he listened to the 2016 NFL draft on a prison-issued radio. A few days later, an 803 area code appeared on Burns' cell phone, a clear indication dad was approved for a call. Once he picked up, Burns heard all about the celebrations inside those walls when the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Burns with the 25th overall pick.

Burns was an 11-year-old boy when he last saw his dad, who walked out of the living room in the fall of 2006 and said he'd "be right back." Between school and football, Burns hadn't found the right time to visit the prison. His father has 11 more years in prison for cocaine trafficking.

It made Burns become the man of the house at a young age, and that maturing process took another steep climb when his mother, Dana Smith, died of a heart attack this past October.

Yet Burns finds himself fueled by loss, almost emboldened by it. He covers wide receivers by day and two generations of family at night. He has taken younger brothers -- Thomas, now 16, and Jordan, 13 -- to track meets and football practices. He's scouting Pittsburgh-area schools for them. He's waiting to sign his rookie contract after which he plans to move girlfriend Ella, 1-year-old son A.J. and his brothers to Pennsylvania full-time.

All this must be carried out. Burns has made promises. Before his mother died, Burns said he would take care of everything, just as she had for so long.

"I'm the provider for my household," said Burns, a former Miami Hurricanes star who is now the Steelers' rookie cornerback.

Filling the gap

Artie Tyrone Burns Sr. and Dana Smith fell in love at Miami (Fla.) Northwestern High, got married and had three boys together. Every weekend in the fall, they would drive their oldest son to football games at the Southwest Boys and Girls Club. Burns played linebacker and running back for his dad, the head coach. Dana was the team mom. They'd stay at the field all afternoon, then cap off the day with a pizza trip.

Dad coached hard, reminding him to tackle like one of his favorites, Junior Seau. Artie loved to draw, and sometimes his crayons would find their way into dad's soft-cover football books on defensive principles.

With a stable home life and a quality outlet in football, Burns was a happy kid.

"I was young, but I was able to catch the stuff they did, the way they interacted," Burns said of his parents. "It helps me now with this whole transformation I have to do. They never said a bad word about anybody."

On Oct. 24, 2006, Dana Smith called her parents around 9 p.m., hysterical. She had learned Artie Sr. traveled to South Carolina, where he was arrested and, four months later, sentenced to 25 years for cocaine trafficking.

His mother's voice affirmed Burns' suspicions. He had known something was up for a while but didn't know exactly what. His father, who would travel a lot, said he had "friends everywhere."

Burns' last vision of his father was that day in the living room with his brothers nearby.

Trafficking in South Carolina requires offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, no parole. His father's projected release date is May 24, 2027.

Smith's parents, John and Barbara Cason, assured their daughter she would have support, that the family wouldn't let "one bad apple take everything down the drain." Cason said his daughter was shocked about the drug trafficking and didn't see it coming.

"If we ate, they ate," John Cason said. "And so what my daughter did was try to protect [her sons] and fill that gap. She didn't let it interfere with nothing that she was doing, which was keeping the boys level-minded."

Smith eventually got a job in the accounting department for a warehouse manufacturer, and Burns got life lessons from Cason on fishing trips. He was told to be respectful, grounded, prompt and keep eye contact when addressing people.

It helped Burns that Smith didn't hide her sons from their father, making sure all three boys took turns talking to him when he called.

Efforts to contact Artie Burns Sr. by ESPN.com have been unsuccessful. The Department of Corrections does not allow personal interaction with the media.

His father's absence forced Burns to accelerate his growth, which he soon discovered he didn't mind. He liked to nurture.

"I had to step up and be that male role model to them," Burns said about his brothers. "We depended on each other."

Taking the field

In Liberty City, Florida, football is basically a state of mind. Those who love the sport adapt accordingly.

Burns covered now-Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper at Miami Northwestern practices. Teddy Bridgewater and Lavonte David are two of Northwestern's brightest football alums.

This is an environment where competitors thrive, especially for athletes like Burns, who became a football and track star at Miami.

"It's an escape," said Tracy Howard, Burns' teammate at Miami who grew up nearby. "It helped make us who we are."

It also helps explain how Burns responded to that horrific week in late October, when Smith collapsed in a parking lot on her way to work. After being kept overnight at a local hospital, Smith died of a heart attack. She was 44.

Days earlier, Smith had made food for Burns and his defensive back teammates. She had told the Miami Herald how Burns had become a "positive role model" for the family. She was her lively self at the Sun Life Stadium tailgate scene before the Hurricanes' 58-0 loss to Clemson that resulted in Al Golden's firing. She was healthy, by all accounts, a strong-willed woman who "does not play" when it comes to raising boys, Cason said. Like her son, she was once a track athlete at Northwestern.

Dozens of teammates, family members and friends poured into the hospital with Cason organizing a prayer. Burns was visibly shaken but quiet.

By the hospital bed, Burns told his mother that he, then a 20-year-old, would raise her sons. Burns believes she heard him.

Burns jogged onto the practice field two days later, bouncing with limitless energy. Normalcy no longer existed, but Burns was going to try to find it.

"[Her death] kind of motivated me to keep going and that is definitely going to motivate me now to step into the league and win a Super Bowl," Burns said.

Miami coaches and players were amazed at Burns' resolve that week.

In that week's game against Duke, ending with the Hurricanes' wild eight-lateral sequence for a touchdown off a kickoff return, Burns was active in passing lanes and had chances at multiple interceptions.

"Getting onto the field and around his teammates sure helped him," then-defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio said. "He competed so hard that whole week. Everyone fed off his energy."

The Burns story touched the Miami community more than the athletic department imagined. The digital department started a GoFundMe account for Burns' medical bills. The money poured in, capped at $40,000. Burns finished the season with six interceptions, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"We kept hitting refresh and refresh in the office," said Tom Symonds, UM's media relations director for football. "Every minute, the money would go up."

New life

Over a hearty plate at Joe's Stone Crab on the Miami strip, Burns told more of his story to Steelers brass. They also met with him at the NFL scouting combine. After each conversation, the team learned new nuggets of info, such as how Burns helped get his brothers ready for school before logging 45-minute drives to his pre-draft training facility in South Florida.

GM Kevin Colbert walked away from the draft process thinking Burns was a "special kid."

Burns' agent, Melvin Bratton, remembers Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin telling him, "If he's there [in the first round], he's my guy." Bratton, a Miami running back in the 1980s, has heard that from coaches before, but he had no reason to doubt Tomlin.

"He knew this kid's story and wanted to be in his life to help him," Bratton said. "For him to want to take this kid on, it's like an uncle figure."

Burns' most unique challenge awaits him in Pittsburgh. The Steelers last drafted a first-round cornerback in 1997. He's one of the last additions to the Steelers' defensive makeover. Many evaluators consider him talented but raw, a label he'll have to overcome in a hurry. As a former hurdler at Miami with 4.4 speed, the Steelers hope his natural ability and work ethic can overcome any early career shortcomings.

Many depend on Burns, on and off the field.

But Burns seems eager to validate the Steelers' faith.

"While I'm here, focus on this, and when I leave, focus on that," said Burns about juggling home life with football. "Just make sure everybody's happy."

The Casons assured Burns they would support him however necessary and plan to make trips to Pittsburgh. Burns is already is trying to make savvy adult decisions. He's protective of his new family, preferring Thomas not be interviewed for this story. Thomas, a track and football star like his brother, is already receiving power-conference scholarship offers for football. He'll deal with the media eventually, Burns said. Girlfriend Ella is his new rock, someone he "really respects." They've been together for about three years.

The family is still in Miami for now, except for his father. And Burns plans to visit Artie Burns Sr. as soon as organized team activities are over.

"He's supporting me, and says all his friends are, too," Burns said. "When we get this break, after the last session of OTAs, I'll go out there [to see him]."

What dad will see is a scarred yet inspired 21-year-old who might as well be going on 50.

Burns calls life a "tough journey," which gives him incentive to guide those around him.

"I've seen guys come out of high school and be prime-time guys and just fall off," Burns said. "I just want to be there for [my brothers], teach them how to get to this level. They have better potential than I have."

This is a lot of mentoring for someone who would be entering his senior year of college in the fall. Cason ensures Burns won't have sycophantic friends and family surrounding him, because the family's not built that way. Burns has good judgment and the Casons are protective.

If the past six months are any indication, Burns should be just fine. Those close to him are continually impressed with his ability to balance it all, and they want him to know he's not alone.

"Quitting is nowhere in this kid's bloodline," Bratton said.