The 100th victory of the head-coaching career of Paul Calley was beginning to look like it might have to wait for another Friday night. The Alma Airedales, playing at home, had all the momentum after overcoming the Bryant Hornets’ 20-10 lead in the third quarter.
With less than half of the fourth quarter gone, Calley’s Hornets got possession at their own 38 for what might well have been their last chance.
Senior quarterback Gunnar Burks spurred the hopes of the Hornets and their fans with an 18-yard pass completion to his favorite target, Aaron Orender. He then led a time-eating, ground-grinding Bryant running game to an apparent first down at the Alma 6.
But a penalty pushed the Hornets back to the Alma 25, deepening the odds against a go-ahead touchdown. Burks continued to make plays. He scrambled for 5 yards. He passed to Austin Kelly for 7 yards to the 13.
It was third down. The Hornets were running out of chances. Going to the air, Burks avoided the Alma rush and fired a pass that appeared to be a throw-away through the back of the end zone to avoid a sack.
As it turned out, however, the pass was on the mark. Orender, alone in the back of the end zone, jumped up and snared it for a touchdown that put the Hornets ahead.
The defense went on to do its part with a goal-line stand and a little luck came the Hornets’ way when Alma missed a potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds but, on Burks’ clutch pass and Orender’s impressive catch, the Hornets provided the 100th career victory to their coach who, as it turns out, was in the midst of his final season at Bryant.
“If I could define Gunnar Burks in one sentence, it’d be, ‘He’s a winner,’” declared Bryant offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Lance Parker. “I think the coaches would say that. I think his teammates would say that.”
No doubt, head coach Hud Jackson and the staff at the University of Arkansas-Monticello would say that too. And, on National Signing Day on Wednesday, Feb. 3, Burks, the son of Catherine and Jesse Burks, signed a letter of intent to continue his football career and his education on scholarship with the Jackson’s Boll Weevils.
“UAM’s getting a quarterback that will only get better,” Parker stated. “He’s matured as a passer. With only one year of experience, I saw him progress as the year went on. And he is a playmaker. Whatever the ‘it’ factor is, he’s got it. I think they’ll be very pleased with his ability to make plays.”
As a senior, Burks completed 114 of 177 passes (64.4 percent) for 1,476 yards and 14 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He also ran for 535 yards and seven TD’s as the Hornets posted a 9-2 record that included a playoff game in which they came as close as anyone to knocking off eventual State champion Fayetteville, losing 30-24.
“I’d say the highlight of his career was that last game where he really matured as a passer,” Parker said.
Burks burned the Bulldogs for 14 of 24 passes, 267 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran one in.
“As the play-caller, sometimes you get a little nervous when things don’t go according to plan and that was frequently the case this season,” Parker related. “But I can tell you, after about week four, I trusted Gunnar. He was going to make it happen.
“He did it both as a passer and a runner,” he acknowledged. “A lot of times that gets overlooked but he was a running back too. He was very critical to our success. I can honestly say, it was one of the most fun experiences of my life, coaching him for a year. I think his best football is ahead of him. I’m really excited and proud of him.”
As a junior, Burks initially shared time at quarterback with senior Brandan Warner. He completed 13 of 14 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 171 yards and five touchdowns on just 34 attempts.
“He was more the passer and I was more the runner,” he recalled. “I definitely had a part of it. I had an ankle injury and I had to sit out a game. Throughout the season, I never really was 100 percent.
“So I went to work in the off-season,” Burks continued. “I was really just trying to progress so I could have a good season my senior year. I felt fine throughout my senior year, never had a problem.”
He got a baptism by fire, though. His first game as a varsity starter was the Salt Bowl against the rival Benton Panthers with a state record attendance for a high school football game of 34,087.
“I’ll always remember that and playing in front of the biggest crowd they’ve ever had,” Burks said.
The quarterback completed 5 of 7 passes for 89 yards including a 65-yard touchdown strike to Orender and rushed for 50 yards on nine tries to help the Hornets to a 37-13 victory.
“I just got all the confidence in the world after that,” Burks said. “I was excited. I knew winning that game was really going to help us throughout the rest of the season, confidence-wise.”
Recruiting after the season came down to two schools, he related.
“It was either Hendrix or UAM,” Burks said. “I was looking at both schools and, you know, Division III (Hendrix) can’t really offer an athletic scholarship so that kind of had something to do with my decision.
“I went to UAM and I really fell in love with the coaching staff,” he continued. “I really liked the players there. They were all big into being like family, playing together. The head coach, Hud Jackson, talking to him I could tell, he’s an honest person and just seems like a really good coach and a good guy. The receivers coach and the offensive coordinator, I liked all those guys so I just committed right there after talking about it.
“I wanted to play at the highest level that I could. I knew Division I wasn’t going to be that so I picked Division II.”
He’ll be in the Great American Conference with the Weevils with a chance to play against Bryant teammates including defensive lineman Mario Waits at Henderson State and offensive lineman Cole Fritschen at Arkansas Tech, who signed on Wednesday as well.
“I want to be able to play schools those schools,” he stated. “I just want to play in the GAC conference, honestly.”
Asked about the plans laid out for him by the UAM coaches, Burks said, “Quarterback is not completely out of the picture but they said they recruited me as a wide receiver, an inside slot receiver. I believe (Coach Jackson) said doing something about special teams and kick return.”
A smart coach, you see, will always find a place for a play-maker and a winner.