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Legacy of winning punched Burt's ticket

This is the first in a Saturday series looking at the Class of 2011, scheduled for induction Nov. 9 at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

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It's one of those sports scenes that's easily remembered, especially if you are a New York Giants fan:

There's Giants nose tackle Jim Burt -- pads off and stripped down to a T-shirt above the waist -- charging into the stands at the end of his team's victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, picking up his 5-year-old son, Jim Jr., and parading around the Rose Bowl with the youngster astride on his shoulders.

It was a picture of joy, family solidarity and told pretty much all you needed to know about Jim Burt.

Twenty-five years later, Jim Jr. is a retired minor league first baseman and Jim Sr. is headed for enshrinement in November in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Burt was on two Super Bowl-winning teams -- the 1986 Giants and the 1989 San Francisco 49ers. Still, it seems wrong that he never was a Buffalo Bill. That's because he is a typical Buffalonian down to earth, unpretentious, a blue-collar family guy.

Although he was raised a little more than a pooch punt away from Ralph Wilson Stadium, Burt played there only once and that was for the University of Miami Hurricanes against Syracuse in 1979. The Orange used the stadium for two games that year while the Carrier Dome was under construction.

In fact, Burt never faced his hometown team as a pro, which might have been a good thing for the Bills. Buffalo and the Giants met only once during Burt's eight years with New York and that was a 1987 game during the NFL players strike when mostly replacement players were used.

Burt was a feisty pro -- he had to be to make it in the National Football League as an undrafted, undersized defensive lineman at the nose tackle position. Despite those handicaps, he became a Pro Bowler and a champion.

When Burt, 52, showed up at the Hall of Fame announcements at HSBC Arena in June, he looked trim and in shape.

"I weigh 260, same as my playing weight," he says proudly. "I should have been an inside linebacker."

Burt now lives in Saddle Brook, N.J., not far from New York City and the new Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. His occupation?

"I'm a bucket filler," he says with a laugh. "I keep filling the bucket and my wife and daughter keep emptying it."

What fills Burt's bucket is his investments in real estate, a sports facility and other interests as well as occasional promotional work. He once served as a volunteer assistant football coach at Bergen Catholic High School and assisted his old pro coach Bill Parcells, when the Tuna was coaching the Dallas Cowboys.

Although he's a fan of all sports, most of his attention these days is directed to his son's football team at Bergen Catholic and to the women's soccer team at Miami, where his daughter Ashlee is a senior defender.

Jim Jr. was a star linebacker at Bergen Catholic and followed his dad's footsteps to Miami but he chose baseball instead of football. He was a first baseman and three-time captain on the Hurricanes, including the 2001 NCAA College World Series championship team. Jim Jr. played in the New York Mets minor league system before he became a high school coach and director of a sports facility in New Jersey.

Although he's been away for nearly 35 years, Jim Sr. is a proud Buffalonian and will talk up the virtue of the city and its people at the drop of a beef on weck.

"There's no traffic and people are nice," is the short version of Burt's enthusiastic endorsement of life in Western New York.

Growing up in the Bailey-Delavan neighborhood and Orchard Park, Burt was a Buffalo sports junkie.

"In the '60s and '70, I don't think I missed a Bills, Bisons [hockey or baseball] or Sabres game," he said.

At Orchard Park High he was a football terror along with future pro Craig Wolfley and Larry Pfohl (known better as pro wrestler Lex Luger). When former Bills coach Lou Saban took the head coaching job at Miami in 1977, he recruited Burt and took him along.

Another Miami recruit the next year was quarterback Jim Kelly. That was the beginning of the football resurgence at Miami, which nearly had dropped the sport in the mid 1970s. Saban stayed for only two years, but Burt and Kelly were part of the football renaissance in Coral Gables. They were offensive and defensive MVPs of the 'Canes 20-10 victory over Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl, Miami's first bowl appearance since 1967.

Howard Schnellenberger replaced Saban in 1980 and in 1983 Miami won the first of its five national championships. Burt was gone by then, but takes pride in helping to start the turnaround.

Although Burt made some All-America teams at Miami, he went undrafted by the NFL in 1981. Still, he made the Giants as a free agent. Another Giants rookie that year was future Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. An up-and-coming member of the coaching staff was defensive coordinator Parcells, and a young Bill Belichick was linebackers coach.

"We kind of grew up together," Burt says.

The Giants have won three Super Bowls and been a consistent winner ever since Burt broke in.

"I started in an organization in college -- the same thing with the Giants -- that was as low as you could get. After losing for many years, they both became winners," Burt said. "It's kind of gratifying to know that you were part of that. And that's what I'm most proud of."

The 21st annual Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame awards dinner will be held at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo on Nov. 9. For tickets, call 888-2977 or go to www.gbshof.com.

email: mnorthrop@buffnews.com

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