Burton led Air Force recruits to lofty destinations
Michigan State Share

Burton led Air Force recruits to lofty destinations

Air Force's visit to Spartan Stadium reunion for Michigan State's defensive line coach

Photo: Michigan State defensive line coach Ron Burton.

Someday Josh King, Naquan Jones and Auston Robertson may thank Michigan State assistant coach Ron Burton. He recruited the four-star defensive linemen that announced their Class of 2016 verbal commitments with the Spartans during a three-day flurry in June.

But to match the appreciation Christian Spears has for Burton recruiting him to the Air Force Academy five years ago, the Michigan State trio will have to help the Spartans win a national title to earn a White House visit.

Spears, a no-star recruit, not only made such a visit last May, the starting safety stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Obama for ceremonial photos at the White House. Spears and quarterback Kale Pearson, the team captains, presented President Obama with a football and Air Force jersey. Top that -- any college football team but Ohio State in 2014.

"It was definitely an honor to be in the presence in our Commander-in-Chief," Spears said. "President Obama was very genuine, and obviously we knew he had a busy schedule. But he took time to visit us. He shook everyone’s hand that was in the room."

The occasion recognized Air Force winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, the round-robin series among Air Force, Army and Navy. The annual White House visit for the team's seniors is similar to the national championship trips to the White House.

Spears is now a lieutenant serving his five-year military commitment following graduation, so he’ll miss Burton’s Air Force reunion when Michigan State plays host to the Falcons on Sept. 19 at Spartan Stadium. Burton coached at Air Force 10 years before joining Michigan State’s staff in 2013. Air Force received five votes to rank among the "others" in the USA Today coaches' poll released July 30; Michigan State is ranked No. 6. 

But you don’t have to tell Spears about the high marks Burton has received in East Lansing for his recruiting and coaching.

“Coach Burton is a special guy and highly motivated,” Spears said. “He never coached me as a defensive back, but I saw him working with the defensive line. He was always getting the defense fired up.”

Spears’ career is an example Burton has an eye for more than the obvious talent. Burton was recruiting another prospect in the Dallas area when he followed up on a tip about Spears, who had no Division I offers at the time, across town at Arlington Timberview. Spears had given no thought to attending a military academy until Burton targeted him.

“One thing he said to me when he recruited me is, ‘If you come to the Air Force Academy, you’re sitting on a gold mine,’ ” Spears said. “We laughed about that, but what he meant was there are so many opportunities that go beyond football that the academy offers. I love football and I’ll always have a love for it, but now I can hang up my helmet and say I served my country as a U.S. Air Force officer. That opportunity is great in itself.”

But Air Force secondary coach John Rudzinski, Spears’ position coach, will be part of the reunion at Spartan Stadium. His father Paul Rudzinski was a four-year letterman and All-Big Ten linebacker for the Spartans from 1974 to 1977. He went on to play for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL.

“Coach Rud is fiery and always has us going,” Spears said. “He always told us to never walk on the field. He would race onto the field to beat us. If anyone was standing around, he made sure they extra back-pedaling work. Once we stepped on the field, we knew Coach Rud would have us prepared.”

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Chargers.com, Rivals.com, and Gameday Central. He has won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003 and USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

Purchase Raye of Light from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com or from August Publishing.

Media interviews  | Amazon customer reviews