Pro Start is a football and basketball clinic, but one that offers a range of services not normally associated with sports clinics, including advice regarding health and nutrition, help making good lifestyle choices, training in personal finance and, perhaps most important, academic counseling and assistance in seeking college athletic scholarships.
“We’re taking kids through every level that they’re going to do until they get to college, and when they get to college, we have a back-up plan for those who don’t go on to play pro sports,” Burley says. “But you’ve got to be professional in something. I’m excited about that part more than I am about the sports part. Not only are we trying to develop athletes, we’re trying to develop citizen athletes to give something back to the community.”
Pro Start, which opened in April, began with football and will soon include basketball. There are presently about 35 participants, all of them promising athletes chosen with the assistance of coaches and principals in the Birmingham city school system. The academy is open to boys and girls ages 12 through 19. The cost of Pro Start Academy is $2,000 per year, but the organization offers scholarships for low-income kids. Russell Athletics is a main sponsor, according to Burley.
Burley, 55, believes in the importance of mentoring young people because he owes a great deal to the adults who mentored him. Burley grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and played high school football but did not receive any scholarship offers. He likely would not have attended college, much less played football, if he had not attracted the notice of two Ohio State players, John Hicks and Jack Tatum, while participating in a summer clinic.
Burley beat Hicks in a foot race. “Here was this big, well-trained Ohio State athlete, and I just dusted him,” Burley recalls. “I was always very fast for a big man. And he said, ‘Man, where you going to college?’ I said, ‘College? I’m going to work at Westinghouse making refrigerators.’ He said, ‘You need to go to college.’”
Burley says Hicks and Tatum befriended him and gave him advice — not just regarding the development of his athletic ability, but on how to market himself for scholarship consideration. Burley won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a four-time All-American. He was a defensive lineman in the NFL for 10 years, with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Atlanta Falcons, and played with the Bengals against the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in 1981. Since retiring from the NFL in 1984, Burley has worked in sports publishing and sports and entertainment marketing and promotion. He moved to Birmingham from Atlanta in 2007 after meeting his future wife, Bobbie Knight, vice-president of public relations at Alabama Power. Burley also established a location of Pro Start in Atlanta, after being involved there for several years with another football clinic.
Pro Start offers its athletes assistance in marketing themselves for consideration for college scholarships, Burley says. “Carolyn Rogers, the director of scholarships at the University of Alabama, will come in and tell kids exactly what it’s going to take to be considered for a scholarship,” he says. “That’s where the citizen-athlete thing comes in — what you’re doing in the community, your grade point average.”
In addition, each athlete is given an online profile that includes all of their athletic, academic and personal information. “It includes everything a college coach would need to know, short of interviewing them personally,” he says. “The next step in the program is to develop these relationships with coaches around the country.” “My own experience was that I wasn’t recruited out of high school. I didn’t have one scholarship offer my senior year. I ended up being a four-year All-American and playing in the NFL for 10 years. I’m not saying that to brag, but how many other kids go under the radar like I did? Basically we’re trying to bridge that gap by developing this online profile for these college recruiters or coaches.”
Burley emphasizes the importance of academics and sound personal conduct for athletes who wish to obtain and keep college scholarships. “The NCAA is starting to sanction schools’ scholarships for graduation rates, so what does that mean to kids who are trying to get a scholarship if they’re not prepared once they get there — on the field, off the field, and in the classroom?” Burley says. “All of our coaches have been there before, and they can provide knowledge in a positive and a negative fashion. My guys tell guys, ‘This is the mistake I made. This is what I was thinking when I was here, here, and here. Don’t do that.’”
It is the presence at Pro Start of these adult role models that Burley sees as the key to the program. “The vision of Prostart is to use Birmingham and Atlanta as the models, and then duplicate the program across the country in other cities that have strong retired NFL player bases,” he says. “We want to use active and retired players and other professionals to teach their experiences, and that’s what will help these kids if they do turn pro. And football is just football. Life is forever. The NFL stands for ‘not for long.’ You’ve got to have that back-up plan. Life will smack you around if you don’t have a plan.”
One component of the Pro Start curriculum is personal financial planning, which is intended to benefit the participants whether or not they ever receive a big pay day from the NFL or NBA. Dr. Franz Lohrke, marketing and management department chair and entrepreneurship programs coordinator at Samford University’s Brock School of Business, has designed a version of his entrepreneurship class expressly for Pro Start, Burley says. “Franz tells them like it is. ‘You got to save money to make money,’” Burley says.
Much of Burley’s success in business can be credited to the strong example set for him by his parents, who were both entrepreneurs. “Dad owned a trucking company and mom ran a beauty shop,” Burley says. “So I learned what it was like to have to get up and make it on your own and not to depend on an hourly wage job. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you can do what you love doing and make money at it, then why not put everything into that?”
Pro Start also offers its students state-of-the-art injury prevention training and technology, through its partnerships with several entities, including Dr. Larry LeMak, a well-known orthopedic surgeon and founding partner of Alabama Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center, and HotHead Sports, a company that has developed a computer chip which, when placed in a football helmet, can warn a trainer if an athlete is threatened with heat stroke. “We’ve got some sports medicine initiatives that some colleges don’t have and some pro sports don’t have,” Burley says.
Learn more about Pro-Start Academy online at www.prostartacademy.com