By Jimmy LaRoue
Mike Burke was nothing if not a colorful, dynamic player in the midfield during his 11 seasons with the Richmond Kickers.
Long-time fans will remember the various hairstyles, including the pink hair that he now looks back on with pride.
But Burkey, as he is affectionately called by the Kickers’ faithful, was also a constant, creative force in the lineup, as well as a dynamic personality that connected easily with the team’s fans, earning the supporter’s choice MVP six times as a Kicker.
For that, Burke, now the club’s Advanced Technical Soccer League director, is being honored Saturday during the Kickers’ game with Orlando City as the club is retiring his no. 19 jersey. He’s not sure how to take that, and he’s unsure how he will react when the moment officially arrives.
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” Burke said. “It’s a little bit hard to accept that all the attention is going to be on me. With regards to retiring someone’s number, it’s a big deal, but it’s surreal a little bit. I don’t know what to make of it. I’m a little bit uncomfortable with it. I’m just trying to wrap my head around it a little bit and understand the magnitude of it, I guess.”
Kickers’ coach Leigh Cowlishaw said Burke is embedded in the club’s culture.
“As a player, he was one of the most popular players of his time, clearly because of what he brought,” Cowlishaw said. “His attacking play, every time he got the ball, something exciting was going to happen, and [many times], that’s what occurred.”
Burke said he’s an emotional person in general, but is unsure what his reaction will be on Saturday. He’s excited, and just a little bit nervous, also, about what the reaction will be to the moment.
“I don’t see myself getting emotional, but my wife thinks I will,” Burke said. “When the moment comes up, I may. I’ve thought about it a little bit, and when I’ve thought about it, I’ve gotten emotional a little bit. But I won’t know until I get there…I’m excited. I’m nervous.”
Leaving Loyola College in Maryland after his sophomore year, Burke trained with Deportivo Cali in Colombia in 1997 and with Nottingham Forest the following year before landing in the A-League with his hometown club, Jacksonville Cyclones.
Playing as a central forward, Burke scored 14 goals but wasn’t happy with the direction of the club and asked for his release, leaving a bit of friction between himself and the club. The Charleston Battery bought his rights near the end of the season, but employed him in the same position, where he tallied an additional two goals. He was named the league’s rookie of the year.
Having always been more of a creative player, his goal scoring caught everyone, including himself, by surprise. To keep that level of scoring up, he knew, “was going to be impossible.”
“I felt like I overachieved a little bit in the sense of my statistics, but I always believed in myself as a soccer player,” Burke said.
He stayed with the Battery through the 1999 season, scoring six goals and picking up six assists in being named team most valuable player. In 2000, D.C. United drafted Burke with the 41st overall pick, and he played seven games there, starting four, before being released.
During that time, he came to realize he was out of his element playing as a central forward. He didn’t have any expectations with MLS, and it didn’t last as long as he would have liked.
“When I went to D.C., I played center forward, and I was just completely out of position at that level,” Burke said. “I couldn’t be the player that I was at that level. It was too big for me. I couldn’t be successful.”
Burke had ties to the Kickers, as his brother Patrick played with Cowlishaw, and once he got to Richmond, he wanted to stay. After he left D.C., Burke played in parts of two more games with the then-Dallas Burn before coming to Richmond in July 2000.
“I had moved around quite a bit and I wanted to start my life somewhere,” Burke said.
Burke said the off-the-field matters, especially coaching in the youth club, was an opportunity he wasn’t going to receive anywhere else. He discovered a love for coaching, and so when other MLS offers came, “it didn’t make sense – it was much more of a risk to take advantage of an opportunity like that than just to stay here and make my life here.”
Cowlishaw, had kept his eye on Burke since the 2000 MLS Combine. Though he signed with MLS first, when that didn’t work out for Burke, Cowlishaw didn’t hesitate to bring him to Richmond.
“I just thought he was an exceptional passer, very good 1v1, fantastic vision, creativity,” Cowlishaw said. “I just didn’t feel he had been really, a natural center forward…I just felt he’d be a lot more valuable with the ball at his feet.”
Cowlishaw said Burke has made players such as forward Matthew Delicate better by his “exceptional crosses,” and said he was particularly strong on set pieces.
He said he takes away special memories of his Kickers playing career, especially the longevity of playing in one city for more than a decade. In the 275 games he played with the Kickers through 2010–second on the all-time team list–in which he tallied 38 goals and 61 assists in more than 18,000 minutes, it wasn’t a game, or a play, that provided his defining moment. It was all the moments, collectively.
“Playing with friends and teammates, and just the road trips and the laughs, and the jokes, and the discussions, and some of the big [U.S. Open Cup] games against MLS teams, some of the championship games, that meant a little bit more,” Burke said.
In particular, during the 2006 season when the Kickers won the United Soccer Leagues Second Division championship with his family watching, and being named MVP of the game.
“It was a perfect scenario that came together at the right time,” Burke said.
With Cowlishaw the coach for the entire time Burke played with the team, and its current coach, the two had occasional clashes, but none that lingered, and the two are close today.
“I think there was no doubt about it, between Leigh and I, there was a bit of a love-hate relationship there,” Burke said. “We butted heads, but we were also very close as well. He’s known me for so long, but he allowed me to be the player that I was.”
Said Cowlishaw: “For me, Burkey was an exceptional talent who could have easily played a lot more in MLS and he had the opportunity to do that on a couple of occasions, but he decided to stay with us, and I always thought he was an unbelievable talent. Sometimes he didn’t approach it mentally as well as he could, and I think those are the times where we clashed, mostly because of the potential he had and that maybe he wasn’t fulfilling it to the best of his ability.”
None of the disagreements lingered, and the two made each other better.
Cowlishaw, too, saw what Burke was feeling about his central forward role, and shifted him to an outside midfield role, which Burke said was a big help in his career.
“I found my identity as a pro,” Burke said. “In the very beginning, I was quick, I was fast, I could combine players, no problem. As age crept in, I had to adapt with how I played, and I became much more of a passer and much more of a creator, much more of a guy that would pass the ball first instead of dribble.”
He was the three-time league leader in assists during his career, and following up on a championship, he was the USL Second Division MVP in 2007. He helped lead the team to another USL championship in 2009 and was a finalist for the league MVP award in 2006 and 2008.
He said the times when he sat the bench and didn’t play were also valuable. They weren’t enjoyable, but he always had Cowlishaw’s respect, and that respect flowed both ways.
“I always believed in who I was as a player and I always believed in my ability,” Burke said. “The fact is, I was here for a long time with the same coach and we fed off each other well and I was allowed to do the things that I was allowed to do.”
The transition to coaching, which began six years ago while he was still playing, went smooth, as he took advantage of opportunities to work with the Kickers’ youth teams, and now he’s working with the clubs’ Under-9 through U-12 age groups.
“There’s no question in my mind the Kickers have the best coach for those age groups in the state of Virginia,” Cowlishaw said.
He’s not sure what means more to him at this point – the on-the-field accomplishments or his impact coaching the Kickers’ youth players. Both have been rewarding for him.
“I think the fact that they’re retiring my number gives me satisfaction that they’ve felt like I was an important part of their club for the last 11, 12 years,” Burke said. “It’s usually the other way around as far as, you’re trying to go out of your way and do what you can for the club to produce, and I think it’s kind of an interesting thank you. It’s pretty amazing.”
He said he’s always has a passion for helping out youth players and said he did his best to be visible and available to them to sign autographs and make a difference. He said his personality fit well with coaching. Cowlishaw said he has a “fantastic temperament” for the task.
“Over time, I became more passionate about coaching than I did about playing,” Burke said. “So it was very, very easy to step aside and not play anymore because I enjoyed coaching so much.”
That part of his life became more important to him, to the point where he fell out of love with playing. He doesn’t miss playing now. The toll on the mind and body created a lot of stress, he said, but he said he looks back without any regrets about his accomplishments. And, he finds coaching far more challenging than playing.
“It surprised me that I lost the passion to play,” Burke said. “It didn’t surprise me that I had so much passion behind coaching.”
He’s coaching the U-10 and U-11 boys’ elite teams, and the club’s U-13 elite team. He coaches like he played, he said–with a lot of energy, with grit and is demanding of them, yet he makes sure they know he cares about them too.
“I just try to put everything I have into coaching these kids because I want them to go home at the end of the day, saying ‘He’s the best coach I ever had. All I want to do is play for Mike. He cares. That’s the kind of stuff that means more to me than anything.”
He coaches, in some ways, to have the youth players act the opposite of how he did as a player, but he wants to impart upon them his vision of the game as well.
“I coach kids the complete opposite to some of my reactions,” Burke said. “My on-the-field reactions weren’t the best at times. I sometimes had a bad attitude, so whenever I see kids go that route, I’m very quick to fix it.”
They don’t know a lot about how he was as a player, but he doesn’t shy away from his feistiness and the changing hairstyles, including the time he attempted, on his own, to dye red streaks in his bleached-blonde hair. It turned all pink instead. He never worried about what people thought of his hair, his clothes or anything else. As he said, “he rocked it” and didn’t look back.
“My favorite hair style, for sure, was when I had the pink hair, but not when I had it,” Burke said. “Now, I think it was cool, but when I had it, I think I got heckled a bit too much to like it. But now I think it was cool. I wish I was 22 again and I’d do it again.”
He’s left that behind, but he clearly has fond memories of those days. He said the journey he’s taken to get to this point is one without regrets, that he’s learned many life lessons. He praised the fans for always supporting him, especially the younger ones.
“I’ve given as much as I could possibly give as long as I played with the team,” Burke said. “All the things I wanted to do as a soccer player I did. I wanted to have an impact on the game, and whether my impact on the game was in the city of Richmond – it may be small, but I think I’ve impacted a lot of kids, which I think is one of the main reasons why I think this is a big night for me.”
And while he gets questioned about future plans, he said he is content with his station in life. He clearly enjoys who he is, and where he is.
“I love coaching kids,” Burke said. “The only thing, possibly, that you could extend yourself or go further is go coach at the collegiate level or the professional level, and I have no desire to do that. My desire is to be on the field with the kids coaching them. And if that’s my role for the rest of my life, I think I’ll be pretty happy.”