Steelers' Artie Burns is in a fight -- for his NFL life, and his dad's life

LATROBE, Pa. -- Artie Burns is well aware of the challenge in front of him -- on the field.

A first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016, the cornerback lost his starting job in Week 3 last season. Now in the final year of his rookie deal, Artie is fighting for his professional life. The team paid him an $800,000 roster bonus on July 28, which doesn't guarantee him a roster spot but is a good sign.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in June that Artie understands the "urgency of his circumstance" and is acting appropriately.

If his maturation off the field is any indication, he'll answer that challenge.

Artie's story is well-documented. He has been helping raise his two teenage brothers, Thomas and Jordan, since his mother, Dana Smith, died of a heart attack in 2015. Their father, Artie Tyrone Burns Sr., has been gone since 2006, serving a 25-year sentence in South Carolina for trafficking cocaine.

Their parents' absence has forced the brothers to rely on each other. And the situation also presents challenges.

"This is a [24-year-old] guy who's parenting teenagers," said Tomlin at a luncheon that honored Artie as the team's Ed Block Courage Award winner two years ago. "I have teenagers. I'm (47). We share conversation about the parenting of these teenagers. This is a guy who embraces this responsibility."

And, in doing so, Artie is prepared for anything, yet uneasy because of this reality: He feels the burden of life without Dad, and there's not much he can do about it.

"I've kind of had to figure out some things for myself," Artie said. "It's been a process. We make it work."

Common goal

Artie and his brothers have bonded, in part, because of their dad's case. Artie estimates he's spent about $35,000 on two lawyers to spark a retrial, without success.

Expediting his dad's release will be difficult.

Burns Sr. was traveling on Interstate 95 in South Carolina in a blue Dodge Charger in 2006 when an officer pulled him over for moving back and forth in a driving lane, according to the Dillon County Sheriff's Office incident report. Burns and the passenger, Johnny Jones, who's also serving a 25-year sentence, said they didn't know each other's last names and told the officer different stories about their trip, according to the report. Burns Sr. said they were traveling to the University of Virginia to visit a relative who played football there. Jones said they were visiting girls. The officer searched the car and found no luggage but two plastic bags containing a white powder substance in the spare tire compartment of the trunk, according to the report.

Burns Sr. has been in Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, for 13 years.

The case has gone through the appeals process and two attempts at post-conviction release under the submission of new evidence, according to Dillon County Solicitor's Office prosecutor Kernard Redmond, who prosecuted Burns' case in 2006. Both attempts were dismissed -- in 2010 and 2017. On July 3, 2018, Burns Sr. filed a motion for a new trial "based on after-discovery evidence, false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct."

What still bothers Artie is the police report, which lists 0.010 grams of cocaine found upon search. The charge is for 100 to 200 grams, which elevates a mandatory sentence to 25 years.

"How do you go from a five-year sentence to a bigger amount [of cocaine]?" Artie asked. "If anything, the sentence should have been reduced."

When the drugs got back to state enforcement labs, officials analyzed three bags totaling 138 grams of cocaine, said Redmond, who classified the listing of 0.010 grams as a "writing error" because drugs aren't weighed on the scene, but through a chain of custody.

But Burns Sr. maintains there were no drugs in the car or displayed as evidence during his trial, and that the officer on the scene actually found bleach crystals for cleaning the car.

Burns Sr. is hopeful the clerk of the court will sign his retrial motion, which cites inconsistencies in the weight amounts.

"My kids have always motivated me to [keep pushing the case]," Burns Sr. told ESPN in a phone interview set up by family consultant Michelle Murray. "I will look at my family photo album in front of me and just think of them. I'll never stop. I'll never stop."

Redmond said Burns Sr. went to trial after rejecting a plea offer of 7-8 years on a lesser charge of possession with intent to distribute. Burns Sr. rejected the plea because that would have been an admission of guilt.

"I was not seeking to give him 25 years," Redmond said.

Good behavior credits can reduce a drug sentence to 85% in the state, Redmond said. And though Burns Sr. has multiple inmate offenses at Lee Correctional for possession of contraband, use of narcotics and intent to possess a cell phone, he believes he will get the reduction because he's successfully held down jobs inside the prison for years.

Artie acknowledges his father has made mistakes. He isn't naïve. He doesn't know if his dad was dealing drugs, and he's never asked him. But Artie doesn't believe the punishment fits the crime, potentially keeping a father away from his sons for nearly three decades.

"I just want to help him. If he was out here, he'd be helping me," Artie said. "Since he can't do anything, I want to help the family. He provided for us and cared for us. I had a good dad. I had a good childhood."

Commitment to family

Instead of feeling anger or bitterness toward his dad, Artie has committed himself to taking care of his family. In addition to caring for his two brothers, Artie has a family of his own with two sons -- A.J., 4, and Saint, 2 -- and fiancée Ella.

Thomas, 19, is the middle brother. After his mother's death, he moved in with his grandparents before moving to Pittsburgh for his senior season at Pine-Richland High. After high school, he was off to Miami for track, and he has since transferred to Texas A&M, where he is also on an athletic scholarship.

Thomas said he had typical brotherly "ups and downs" with Artie but the two were older and talked through things. He understands why Artie rides him about grades and gives advice on his collegiate track career.

Artie shares a different relationship with Jordan, who is 16 and a running back and safety at Pine-Richland. Jordan calls Artie "like a brother -- and a father, sometimes," but the oldest and youngest Burns brothers have their moments.

"If he tries to play a father figure, my little brother won't necessarily shut him off but he might say, 'But you're not my dad,' and then they'll get in an argument," Thomas said. "They leave it alone, let it steam, and then they are good. I don't know how to explain it, really. You could say it's a little bit harder (for him). He had to adjust to life."

Added Artie: "If (Jordan) is going through phases, I can be a big brother, but I can't be his father. It jeopardizes my relationship with him."

Jordan is grateful for Artie's guidance, reminding him to be diligent in school and stressing the importance of hard work and being on time. Artie also helped Jordan compile his football highlight tape for college recruiters, encouraging him to lead it with splashy plays. Artie's brothers consider Ella to be like a sister figure, filling in gaps and helping to keep the family going.

Jordan knows Artie is doing his best, but when asked about the idea of his father being a part of his teenage years, Jordan said, "I just need him." Burns Sr. has asked Jordan and Thomas to let Artie guide them, but phone calls only do so much.

"He'll help me out with school, football, going on college visits," Jordan said of his dad. "I know he'll be here soon."

'The glue to our family'

On a Steelers off day earlier this summer, Artie sat in front of a sizzling plate of steak and chicken fajitas, waving his hand through the steam and expressing excitement for a planned trip to visit Dad sometime in July.

He hasn't seen him since he went to Lee Correctional Institution 13 years ago.

"It's going to be emotional," Artie said from Patron's Mexican Grill in North Pittsburgh, noting he planned to get adidas shoes for Dad and inmates to make the trip "special."

But the trip never happened.

Life always seems to get in the way. The three brothers wanted to make the nine-hour drive together, and between Jordan's summer football schedule and Thomas' track and field transfer, a plan never came together. Because his brothers had commitments and Artie was in Pittsburgh with his two kids, Artie decided going at a later date was probably best.

Artie promised Dad he would reschedule. Lack of finances used to keep them away, and when Thomas and Jordan visited about five years ago, Artie missed the trip because of a football commitment at Miami.

Thomas cried when he hugged his father goodbye that day, and he knows Artie needs to experience that eventually.

"We are always busy," Thomas said. "Something always comes up. And there's a lot on his plate to the point where he has to say, 'I'm really going to go out of the way to make the trip.'"

Artie stresses there's no resentment for the man who coached him in youth football and took him for pizza most weekends. He considered his dad "the glue to our family." The happy memories are vivid, and that's enough right now. The boys talk on the phone with Dad multiple times a week.

Burns Sr. understands Artie's absence.

"It might be something that's hard for him seeing me in prison like this," said Burns Sr. "I don't think he's ready yet. When he was young, he was always with me. I used to pick him up from school, take him to practice. I understand. I'll wait on you. I'll be patient."

These days, Artie shares Bible verses with his dad over the phone and updates him on his grandchildren. Artie also spoils his own children out of sheer love, Thomas said.

"He's matured big time -- big time," Jordan said. "Him having kids, it's like his maturity stepped up. His responsibility is looking after all of us."

Artie doesn't talk much about football with Dad, though he knows that bond will never leave them. Burns Sr. used to coach his young son to tackle like his favorite player, Junior Seau: with force and good technique.

Broaching the football subject over lunch elicits a simple answer from Artie: "I'm going to have a good season." He repeated the same phrase minutes later mid-conversation.

Validating those words, Artie has had positive moments on the practice field. He had multiple pass breakups in the spring and in training camp, and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley said Artie has spent extra time with coaches to refine his place in the system.

Burns Sr. wishes he could be there to lessen that burden -- on and off the field.

He's always ready to talk technique or fundamentals like it was 2006 again. Lee Correctional has a handful of Steelers fans, Burns Sr. said, and he tries to watch every game.

That's far less rewarding than how he used to draw up plays for his son for youth football games, or how he used to find his son's crayons inside his notebooks.

"I'd rather be there to help him," Burns Sr. said.

Artie has always believed in his dad, which is why he wants to cap 2019 the right way -- by winning big with the Steelers, then visiting Dad after the season.

But Artie's learned too much the past few years not to enjoy today.

"What I lost from him is time," said Artie of his dad. "But I know he wants me to give my family all the tools they need."