2023 CFL Draft profiles: Laurier DB Patrick Burke Jr. flying to football dreams on wings of an ‘angel’

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/Laurier Athletics

As dozens of pro football hopefuls prepare for the biggest job interview of their lives at this week’s CFL Combine, many will take a moment to bask in the absurdity of reaching their childhood dream.

Wilfrid Laurier’s Patrick Burke Jr. won’t be one of them. For him, there is nothing strange about where he is at in his sporting career.

“This isn’t bizarre to me, I should be here,” the defensive back said in an interview with 3DownNation earlier this offseason. “I didn’t imagine it but it’s something that I anticipated.”

From a very early age, becoming a professional athlete was Burke’s primary goal. He knew he had the athletic ability and determination to attain it, and didn’t much care what sport it would come in. As long as he was cashing cheques for playing a game, he’d be right where he was supposed to be.

For many years, it was soccer that provided him with the best path forward. It wasn’t until the summer of tenth grade that football even crossed his radar. He instantly fell in love with the physicality of the game, but there was only one problem: he couldn’t afford the registration costs.

Resigned to his fate, Burke apologized to his local club, the Etobicoke Eagles, and told them that he wouldn’t be able to play. Unbeknownst to him, that didn’t sit right with someone else involved in the organization.

“The next day they reached out to me and said, “You’re good to play. A football angel covered all your expenses,'” he recalled. “To this day, I don’t know who it is. I always try to get answers, but no one tells me anything. Hopefully when I do get drafted, I can ask again and maybe they’ll tell me.”

Thanks to the anonymous sponsor, Burke was able to suit up with the team. Seven years later, it still sticks in the back of his mind and drives him to be the best version of himself.

“That’s when I really started to push myself,” he admitted. “If someone’s willing to do all this for me, I gotta show out.”

It is safe to say that the six-foot, 200-pound defensive back has delivered on his end of the equation, turning his time with the Eagles into a university degree and more. After five years at Laurier, he has established himself as one of the top prospects in the 2023 CFL Draft despite making a position switch early in his college career.

Originally recruited as a linebacker, Burke was taking scout team reps in his first season when he was forced to rotate into the secondary. Seeing his potential, the coaching staff — led by defensive coordinator Ron VanMoerkerke and then-defensive backs coach Dwayne Cameron, who now runs the CFL Draft for the Calgary Stampeders — made a simple request.

“They said, ‘Learn it.” I asked them what position exactly and they said, ‘Learn all of it,'” Burke grinned. “Looking back at it, I’m glad I did. Playing DB, you get to cover someone, you get to dominate then, and then you get a chance to force a turnover, score a touchdown and celebrate it.”

Coaches and good samaritans weren’t the only ones to see the Etobicoke native as a diamond in the rough. Though he briefly considered reclassifying for a shot at the NCAA, Burke was lured to the Golden Hawks thanks to a handful of future CFL talents on the team’s roster, including 2022 Grey Cup hero Robbie Smith. However, it was current Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Godfrey Onyeka who had the biggest impact, despite the three-time All-Canadian departing prior to Burke’s first season after being taken in the second round of the 2018 CFL Draft.

“For some reason, he always said, ‘I see something in you, you’re going to be even better than me,'” Burke shared. “Hearing that as a freshman, you think there’s no way. Like, he’s a legend, you kind of don’t understand it. But he said, ‘Don’t worry, once you start getting the flow of it, you’re gonna be a really good player.'”

“Every time I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, I always reach out to him and talk about it. He’s always there for me.”

The fledgling cover man also found an unlikely ally on the offensive side of the ball, where receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. was entering his final U Sports season. The future all-star for the Toronto Argonauts took a shine to his young teammate and went out of his way to offer assistance after roasting him in practice.

“As a freshman, if we’d go against each other in one-on-ones, I’d lose. I’d ask him, ‘How’d you do this?’ Instead of him being like, ‘Oh, I’m just better than you,’ he’d tell me, ‘I did this because you did this and I used it against you,'” the defender recalled. “He always helped me get better. Not a lot of offensive guys want to do that. I always looked at him as a mentor.”

Even with assistance from marquee names, it took Burke three years to see meaningful minutes in a loaded Laurier secondary. He finally broke out after the cancelled 2020 season, collecting 16 tackles and two interceptions when the team returned to the field in 2021.

True to his word, he learned every position in the secondary and has spent considerable time at both corner and halfback. It is the latter where he feels most naturally comfortable, placing himself closer to the box where his downhill physicality shines the most. In his eyes, it is that aggressiveness that separates him from other prospects.

“Some people will train for it but don’t show it in their game. For me, I’ll run full speed into an offensive lineman and put him on his ass. I will hit a running back and make him fumble,” Burke stressed. “That’s just how I like to play. Me versus you and I’m picking me every time.”

While there are some concerns about his fluidity in man coverage, that aggressiveness will be far more important for scouts’ evaluation of Burke. CFL defensive schemes skew zone-heavy anyway and a young DB’s path onto the roster runs through special teams, where he is free to do what he does best: run and hit.

It is an aspect of the game that the 22-year-old doesn’t just tolerate, but relishes.

“I was on every special team except for probably field goal,” he said. “I was returning, I was a gunner, I was on the line, I was a blocker. I did it all and I love doing it.”

At times, that workload had to be cut down, but only because of his vital importance to the defence. In 10 games last season, Burke made 39 tackles, two tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, and an interception.

That was good enough to be named a second-team OUA all-star, but national attention has eluded the Golden Hawk standout. Even American scouts took notice before Canadian awards voters, inviting him to participate in the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas this past January — making him the only U Sports prospect in attendance to have never been named an All-Canadian.

“I do feel like I’m slept on. Even when I wasn’t an All-Canadian, it just feels like there was no possible way that could be right,” he confessed. “I guess sometimes there’s politics and I did miss a couple of games but when everyone sees me play, they know that they have to gameplan for this guy. Eventually, my tape talks.”

CFL talent evaluators have been listening and Burke is expected to be a mid-round selection this May. Also a member of the Laurier track team, he has a chance to rocket up draft boards with a strong athletic showing in Edmonton this week.

However, none of that would have been possible if not for a simple act of kindness by one football angel several years ago, something the prospect will not soon forget.

“Thank you for taking the shot on me and seeing something that I didn’t know at the time was there,” Burke said, delivering a message to the nameless donor. “Thank you for putting me in the right direction and helping me get to where I am.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.