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One-on-One Coverage

Ex-Giants nose tackle Jim Burt on Buffalo childhood, rooting for hometown teams

When Jim Burt's two children were younger, he always liked to take them by that 1,500-square-foot house at 185 Easton Ave. in Buffalo. He wanted them to get a good look at the three-bedroom dwelling he shared with two brothers, three sisters and their parents.

And one bathroom that was upstairs," Burt, 60, said with a laugh. "So, for the boys, the big bathroom was outside. My kids would say, 'All of you lived in that house?' And I'd say, 'You know what? We didn't know any different.' "

What Burt knew back then was a childhood filled with playing sports year-round, the often blunt lessons from the streets, and overwhelming love and support from a large immediate family and an even larger extended family.

It all formed the foundation on which he built an 11-year career as an NFL nose tackle. Burt has two Super Bowl rings — one with the New York Giants, with whom he spent eight seasons (1981-1988), the other with the San Francisco 49ers (1989-1991).

Now a resident of Saddle River, N.J., he also has had plenty of success in his post-football life. He has long been involved in the building and selling of homes, and he owns numerous rental properties. Burt also works in business development for a computer company. He even once had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Jim Burt, at the Indianapolis 500 in 2010 (Joey Foley/Getty Images)

But the former Orchard Park High School and University of Miami standout will tell you that none of it would have been possible without his Buffalo upbringing.

"When anything bad happens, I revert back to that," Burt said. "The work ethic, falling down and getting up."

His mother, the late Jeanie Burt, had four sisters. They, along with the Burts, lived within a square mile of each other. That helped make the four walls at 185 Easton Ave. seem a lot less confining.

"Anytime there was a slowdown at our house and nobody was around, I would just drive my bike to any one of their houses," Burt said. "Once a year, we'd have a family picnic with literally hundreds of people. You just rode your bike anywhere. You'd go to the different playgrounds and there were all different things to do and a lot of different kids around to play at any time.

"You were never alone."

His father, the late Don Burt, drove a delivery truck for Pepsi-Cola. One of the job's biggest perks came from the fact that the Pastor family, owners of the local Pepsi franchise, also owned the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League. That meant a steady supply of free game tickets for Don and his family, and it contributed heavily to Jim developing a strong passion for hockey.

From age 5, Burt and his brother, John, who was three years older, would accompany their dad on his deliveries during the summer and school holidays. Along the way, they received an education that couldn't be found in any classroom.

"I learned everything about life, about commerce," Burt said. "We had so many different stops: stores, pizzerias. And you had the different neighborhoods and different cultures in each one.

"By the time we were 14 or 15, we knew how to do everything: make the bill out, collect the money, drive the truck, the whole deal. Now, we weren't legally supposed to drive the truck at 15, but …"

As fun and fascinating as it might have been to help his father on his route or know that his grandfather on his mother's side, Jack Crotty, was a Buffalo police captain or that his father's cousin, Leo Donovan, was the head of homicide for the Buffalo Police Department, Burt constantly dreamed of following in the cleat and skate marks of the heroes of his youth. He saw himself one day running through and around defenders the way Cookie Gilchrist and Elbert Dubenion did at War Memorial Stadium. He saw himself flying up and down the ice and scoring goal after goal like his two favorite hockey players, Gilbert Perreault of the Sabres and Guy Trottier of the AHL Bisons. He would pound out hit after hit like Pete Rose and Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds.

"I had visions," Burt said. "I did think I was going to play in the NFL. I also thought I was going to play in the NHL. And I thought I was going to be a major league baseball player.

Bills director of college scouting Terrance Gray. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"I guess I may have been delusional thinking I was going to make (the Giants). And when I went into my first year, I had no idea. I said, 'These guys are grown men.' But you know what? Show me you can beat me up. And then, when you show me you can beat me up, you have to show me again tomorrow."

In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Burt talked by phone with The Buffalo News about growing up in Buffalo, the way sports dominated his youth, and his playing days at Orchard Park, Miami and the NFL.

Buffalo News: Is it  fair to say that your biggest competitive influence was your father?

Jim Burt: He taught me how to play golf. On Wednesdays and weekends, he used to golf at Audubon Golf Course in Amherst. In the winter time, it was bowling. In the summer, he played horseshoes. Then he'd go to the bars and play shuffleboard and shoot pool.

BN: It seems like, as much as you define yourself by your experiences in Buffalo, you understood that your father ultimately did what he thought was best for the family by moving to Orchard Park.

JB: In the '60s, there was integration and a lot of stuff going on. It got really rough for my brother, John. When he first started going to high school, about 20 kids would meet at our house and they would walk together to Kensington High School and have support for each other so that they wouldn't get jumped.

BN: But going from the city to the suburbs was especially hard on you, wasn't it?

JB: When I first went to Orchard Park, it was like moving from the United States to a different country. It was a completely different culture. I was shell-shocked. In the city, you'd drive your bike and you'd play with everybody because everybody was there. I'd go to the bowling alley where my dad went, and the guy would let me bowl games for free. I could do everything.

All of a sudden, we moved out to the suburbs and it was a completely different world. You couldn't take your bike and go anywhere because the distances were different. No playgrounds. I hated it. It was a horrible deal.

My aunts weren't there. I knew nobody. I had to get on a bus to go to school. And in Orchard Park, it was all white. In Buffalo, it was half white kids and half black kids.

BN: When did you to get used to it?

JB: It took me a couple of years. What turned the corner for me wasn't football or basketball, which I also played. It was hockey. It was a guy named Gerry Kempf, who was the hockey coach and who would later become my father-in-law after I married his daughter, Colleen. She was my first girlfriend.

I was playing hockey with some kids on Freeman's Pond in Orchard Park, by Baker Street. And the kids said, "Wow! You should come out for the team." At first, (Kempf) said it was too late to try out, because I didn't get there until halfway through eighth grade. But the kids told him he should give me a tryout. And, of course, I made the team and became his favorite player. It was instant chemistry between him and I. He was probably 31-32 years old and I was 12 or 13, so he was like a big brother.

I get emotional when I talk about him. He was a tough character. You had to get in the rinks at 5, 6 o'clock in the morning, and he'd pick me up for practices. He always had my back. No one could replace my dad, but he became what my aunts, my uncles, the friends I used to play with were to me. He coached me throughout high school. I did play other sports at the time, but it seemed like I played hockey at least half to three-quarters of the time that I was there.

BN: So, deep down, you're a hockey guy.

JB: Hockey was my favorite. There were outdoor rinks all over the place. You walk through the projects where I played football, it became a rink in the winter. People in the neighborhoods would put the boards up and those rinks would stay clean all winter, because after we skated on them, we'd broom them off and then take a bucket of water and throw a new sheet of ice on there. Once it froze in November, it was frozen until the end of March.

I was always Guy Trottier, who was a big goal-scorer for the Bisons. He was a right-handed shooter. I started out as a left-handed shooter, but after I saw Guy Trottier, I started shooting from the right. In 1970, when the Sabres flipped the coin with Vancouver and got Gilbert Perreault, I instantly became a fan of his. I emulated every one of his moves. Mornings before school, I'd be doing his moves in the garage, stick-handling around the net we had there.

When I was 8 years old, it was a dime to ride the bus. I used go down to the corner, get on the bus by myself to go to the Aud to watch Bisons games. Sometimes I'd go with my brothers, sometimes I'd go with an older friend, but a lot of times I went by myself. When the game was over, I'd get back on the bus and I'd be home by 10 o'clock at night.

BN: How big of a Bills fan were you?

JB: My dad had season tickets for the Bills at War Memorial Stadium. My first game, I was 6 years old. It was 1966, we were trying to go to the first Super Bowl, and we played the Kansas City Chiefs at home. We lost that game, and the Chiefs went on to face the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.

The Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees were my two teams in baseball. As a little kid, I used to get the paper and look at the box scores and it seemed like every day in the summertime, Pete Rose would go 3-for-4, 2-for-4. I'd always look at his batting average. There was Johnny Bench and the rest of the Big Red Machine, with Cesar Geronimo and (George) Foster and (Ken) Griffey. I could name the whole lineup.

BN: When did you start getting serious about playing football?

JB: I was a late bloomer. I didn't mature, physically, until I was 16-17 years old. When I was a sophomore in high school, I played on the JV team. In my junior year, I played fullback and outside linebacker. In my senior year, I played fullback and linebacker. I never played on the defensive line.

We had Lex Luger, the former pro wrestler whose real name was Larry Pfohl, on that team. Larry played in the USFL, the Canadian League, and he played for the Packers for a little bit. We had Craig Wolfley, who played a bunch of years for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a couple more with Minnesota.

BN: How did you end up at the University of Miami?

JB: Lou Saban was the coach. He had just left the Buffalo Bills, and he recruited me. He came to my house, 71 South Lane. Of course, we were Bills fans. He had a few beers with my dad. He was a regular guy. That guy was a tremendous dude, a man's man type of guy. His daughter, Chris, was a year behind me in school.

They put me a nose tackle in the first spring practice. I had never played defensive line. I had played outside linebacker, inside linebacker and fullback. And I was just getting smashed because I was trying to attack the guy in front of me. At nose tackle, you've got to watch everyone on each side. You have to have peripheral vision.

Well, I got the crap beat out of me in the spring to learn the peripheral vision. When they moved me to the line, I was 6-1 1/2, 245 pounds, I was a good-sized linebacker, but I'm way undersized for a nose tackle. I took a beating, but I learned the position after a little bit.

Lou left Miami after a year and a half, and he was replaced by Howard Schnellenberger. Howard was a Bear Bryant guy. You want to talk about strict and Southern toughness, but I was ready for that stuff, too. My junior and senior year, I set all the records for tackles and everything like that. I made All-American.

BN: What was it like having Jim Kelly as a teammate on the Hurricanes?

JB: Jim got there my junior year. The first time he played was in the second half against Syracuse at Rich Stadium. We ended up losing a tight game, but then he made his first start at Penn State when they had one of the most talented teams in the history of college football at the time. And we go there and beat them.

Kelly had the toughness and he had that little extra chip on his shoulder. Same kind of deal with me, Irish kid with a chip on his shoulder. Once he got in there, you were going to have to kill him to get him out of there. He fell and got up many times. He was one of those guys that was never going to be held down. That was the mentality he had and that's why he became a Hall of Famer.

BN: What put you on the Giants' radar enough for them to sign you as an undrafted free agent in 1981?

JB: Nose tackles were just coming in the league at that time with more teams switching from 4-3 to 3-4 defenses. The Giants were a 3-4. Since I was an All-American and I was making all those plays, not getting drafted was kind of a shock. So almost every team in the NFL was calling me to come for a tryout — except the Buffalo Bills, because they had Freddie Smerlas. But the Giants called me and they were close to home, so that was the first team I went to.

At rookie minicamp, they had me run the 40 and I had a 4.82 and a 4.80. I did like 35 or 38 (bench-press) reps at 225. And then we did one-on-one pass rush. I was killing them all. I was enjoying giving these guys who were drafted a beating, just running around them and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. I was going full speed and, even though we were in shorts, I was hitting like we had full pads on.

But I always knew I was a walk-on and I remembered, when I was at Miami, the walk-ons didn't even dress in the same locker room as us. They were treated like blocking dummies. Ray Perkins was the coach, and I went up to his office and I said, "All right, Coach, listen, this is how I see it: I'm a walk-on. You have guys that you drafted, you have a lot of money in them. Are you going to give me a chance?" I know now that I was a top priority to sign, because I had productivity at Miami. But at the time, I wanted to visit other teams that I could make that had a need.

So Ray Perkins is sitting across from me, and I'm looking into his soul and he's looking into my soul. He tells me I'm going to get a fair shot. I said, "Coach, I know this is a business and I don't believe you." He jumps up, he gets in my face and he yells, "Are you calling me a liar?" He's having an emotional reaction like he wants to take a swing at me. I looked him dead in the eye and I said, "Listen, this is nothing personal, Coach. You can get mad. You want to hit me, throw a punch. But I'm going to ask you again, 'Are you going to give me a chance?' "

All of a sudden, he smiles and goes, "You're (bleepin') crazy!" I said, "No, you're crazy. I've got a kid at home, he's less than a month old. I've got to feed him. I don't want to make the team if I'm not good enough, but if I'm good enough I want to make this team." That resonated with him. He said, "You sign here and I promise you, if you're good enough and better than those other guys, you'll make the team."

Jim Burt of the New York Giants celebrates with his son near the end of Super Bowl XXI in 1987. (George Rose/Getty Images)

BN: What was that first exposure to Bill Parcells, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator at the time, like?

JB: He was a pain in the butt. He was saying all derogatory things to me the whole camp. He never let up. Not once, ever. I mean, he was just busting my chops all the time. But I was looking at him like, "You're not breaking me. I'm unbreakable, trust me. Because I'm from Buffalo. Talking all that (bleep)? I'm used to that from the playground and my family was all like that. That just motivated us."

BN: What was the turning point in convincing the coaches that they needed you on that team?

JB: Ray Perkins told me I would be starting our third preseason game, against the New York Jets. They had Freeman McNeil at running back and would have one of the best rushing offenses in the league that year. They had Joe Fields, an All-Pro center.  I played the first half, and they didn't get a sniff on us in the running game. We completely shut them down, played really well. Even Parcells made a nice comment to me. Then, Ray Perkins came up to me and said, "I'm so proud of you. You chose the Giants, and it's an honor to have you on this team. You made the team." I ran to the pay phone to call my dad. I didn't play the second half.

BN: What was it like to be part of building a Super Bowl champion?

JB: It was a long haul, a big journey. It was the same as Miami. Miami was horrible when I first got there and we changed the culture and turned the whole thing around. With the Giants, we had a nice run of it in '84 and '85 and we were building up and building up. And '86, we finally broke through, in my sixth year, and won the Super Bowl.

BN: What was Parcells, the head coach, like?

JB: He was non-stop instigating fights, instigating competition. In training camp, he would be saying something to one guy and something else to another guy, and then all of a sudden, you're in a fight with that guy. To get him to trust you or get on his side, it takes a long time. And even after that happened, the expectations became even more.

He'd put his arm around you like he was your friend. Then, the next day, he was your worst enemy. It was the craziest thing in the world. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But he got every ounce or everything out of everyone. If Parcells wasn't Lawrence Taylor's coach, I promise you, he would have been a good player. But he wouldn't have been Lawrence Taylor. That's the complete truth.

But, again, I thrived in the competitive atmosphere. I was geared for that. It was all from the toughness of me growing up in the City of Buffalo. Not to give up. We want to earn everything we have. The Buffalo way. Blue collar, be nice to everyone … unless they're not nice to you. Then you try to kill 'em. And other people didn't have that work ethic and that fight, and that's what helped me move along.

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