By Doug Fernandes
You may remember Trey Burton from that nifty 1-yard touchdown pass he completed to Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles in Philadelphia’s victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
That play, one of the more remarkable in Super Bowl history, pushed the Venice native and backup tight end onto the national scene.
But he wasn’t always so well known.
Burton first came to prominence at Venice High School, where he accounted for 76 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons as the Indians’ dual-threat quarterback.
He earned a scholarship to the University of Florida, playing four years for head coaches Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp. As a freshman quarterback in 2010, Burton scored six touchdowns in a game against Kentucky, a performance that broke the Gators’ previous mark, held by Tim Tebow. Yes, that Tim Tebow.
Burton wound up playing multiple positions at Florida, ending his career with 1,696 total yards and 20 touchdowns.
Still, he went undrafted in 2014, signing as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles. He earned a spot on the team as its fourth tight end and began making an immediate impact on the Eagles’ special teams. He was named to the NFL-All Rookie team as a special teams player.
He didn’t catch any passes that first season, but over the next three years with the Eagles, Burton became a bigger part of the team’s offense. Three receptions in 2015 were followed by 37 in ’16, good for 327 yards and a touchdown. Last season, Burton caught fewer passes (23), but his five scores were a career high.
And then, of course, came his performance in Super Bowl LII.
Cha-ching. A free agent after the season, Burton signed a contract with the Chicago Bears for four years and a potential $32 million. His average salary of $8 million makes him the NFL’s sixth-highest paid tight end.
With Bears training camp set to start July 19, Burton will provide an up-close look at his first year in Chicago through correspondence with Herald-Tribune sports columnist Doug Fernandes throughout the season.
In this first installment, Burton touches on getting acclimated with his new team and its many offseason workouts.
Q: You were known in Philadelphia. But free agency had a lot of unknowns — who might want you, how much money you’d command. Were you a little bit intimidated by the process?
Burton: “Winning the Super Bowl is the No. 1 thing you can do in this profession. Same with MLB and all the other sports. Winning that title game is the best, but the second best is being able to hit free agency at your peak time.
“My agent and I were really excited, we didn’t know what type of market it would be. We knew that there’d be a pretty big-size market, but we just didn’t know. There was a lot of uncertainty. We knew we weren’t going to be back in Philly because of their salary-cap space, and it’s really tough to bring back everybody on a team, especially after you win.
“It was really more of a waiting game. We had to wait until people were allowed to reach out to my agent. Once all that happened, we were kind of blown away. It was weird, man, because last year Philly and I were trying to figure something out before the season. They wanted to sign me for a little bit longer and I said, ‘If you give me three years, $4 million a year, I’ll sign right now.’
“They couldn’t do that, so we were just really excited to hit the market and we figured we’d be somewhere around $12 million. But once we hit free agency, we saw how much bigger it was. It basically doubled all that, so we were kind of blown away.”
Q: You didn’t sign for the top dollar. What was most important to you?
Burton: “There were a ton of factors, especially coming off a winning team. It’d be really tough for me to go to a team that wasn’t going to compete for a championship. And also coming from Philadelphia, one of the most historic places to play football. There’s so much history and the fans are nuts. Everything about that city is a football town. It’d be tough for me to go somewhere that wasn’t a football town.
“Chicago is one of the only places in the NFL that matches Philly or be even better. I fell in love with (head coach Matt) Nagy the first time I was able to talk to him. The same with Kevin Gilbride, my tight ends coach. The list goes on and on. It wasn’t just one thing, but what was a huge factor was going to a city that we could make an impact off the field.
“Yeah, football is awesome, but when you make impacts off the field, that’s where you become a legend. I don’t want to just be a good football player, I want to be somebody that for years to come that people will look at, ‘Man, this dude made a huge impact,’ or maybe I might not see it right now, but the fruit of my labor in a couple of years will be a lot bigger than my athletic accomplishments on the field.”
Q: Coming to a new team, maybe not knowing anyone, how did you manage to fit in?
Burton: “It’s a big transition. In a way, it’s weird, just because of the way I left Philly. Obviously, I left on very good terms and extremely thankful to everybody, from the top all the way down to the bottom. Winning a Super Bowl but not being able to be back with your teammates in a sense to kind of enjoy it.
“I’m in a new city and new team. It was a tough transition because if you look at it, I go from not playing much on offense to having to be the guy now, which is really cool. Looking at it from my perspective, I’m really excited and I can’t wait just for the opportunity.
“So not only do I change cities but my role changes and increases as well. But then you also got to look at the leadership side of things. My role is going to change on that as well because I’m going to play more. All this stuff is great and positive things, but it’s just a big transition from where I was at.”
Q: When you join a new team, how do you break the ice and settle in?
Burton: “It just depends on the type of group you have. I’ve been extremely fortunate. I literally could not have asked for a better tight-end room than Philadelphia. There aren’t any better guys in the league than them. I wouldn’t say worried, but I was interested in seeing how it was going to be in Chicago.
“You never know when you got a ‘big-money guy’ coming in and they pay a guy a lot of money to come in and play your position and there are already five guys there at the position. But you have peoples’ personalities and you got to kind of show them that I’m human, too. I’m not trying to come in here gangbuster-style and wreak havoc.
“I’m trying to improve the unit overall. You come in there with that mindset instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’m the best guy here. I want all the catches and all the targets.’ No, they already have a really good tight end, so I’m just trying to see where I fit in and just help the unit and help the team grow as well.”
Q: Even though this is your first year with the Bears, you do want to be looked at as a leader, right?
Burton: “With my experience playing football, the guys who normally can stay even regardless or if you have a good play or a bad play, the guys who, no matter if you get knocked down a 100 times, the cliché of getting back up and fighting, like, that’s real.
“I have the most respect for the players who I might beat five out of five times, I know for sure it’s going to be hard battle every five times. That’s the type of guy I am. I’m not the most athletic, I’m not the fastest, strongest, the biggest, none of that, but I want to win and I keep fighting, so hopefully my teammates will see that in me and I’ll be able to lead.”
Q: In your short time there, have you been able to come to an opinion why the Bears haven’t won?
Burton: “I don’t want to call it a losing culture, because I don’t think it is. I was completely blown away from my first couple of days here in Chicago, just by the heart of the guys on the team. Some of these guys opened up to me about how much they hated losing and how much they wanted to win.
“They literally will do whatever it takes and I was like, ‘Dude, this is awesome. These guys are the real deal.’ They just haven’t experienced it. I definitely wouldn’t say it’s because they’ve had bad teams. I would say they got the short end of the stick a lot of times.
“In Philly we didn’t play perfect every game. We got a lot of good bounces of the ball, we got a bunch of calls that were in our favor. All that needs to happen in order to win a Super Bowl, but a lot of that has happened the opposite way in Chicago. When you’re trying to change the culture of a program, there are definitely some things that have to change.”
Q: Throughout all these OTAs, have you been staying in that $45 a night hotel?
Burton: “I was for a while. But the second week of May, we bought a house and we moved into it. But it’s just been me for the most part. My wife came once to make sure this was the house. She came one weekend, we looked at 20 houses and then the next day we bought it and I moved in the next week by myself.
“It’s 10-15 minutes from our facility. It’s in between O’Hare Airport and the facility in Lake Forest. It’s 15 minutes each way and we planned that purposely because we fly in and out so much. This is definitely the nicest house we’ve ever bought.
“Houses are a lot bigger here, if you include the basement. We just got a house big enough. We didn’t want to live way above our means, but we wanted to make sure we had what we need because we have big family, with our nanny and our three kids and my wife and I.”
Q: You’re a family man. Has it been tough to come back to an empty house?
Burton: “Yeah, that’s the toughest part of this time right now. The offseason is tough because my kids were in school still and they weren’t able to come up. My daughter is going into kindergarten next year and so she graduated preschool and they came up last Sunday.”
Q: Have you had a chance to check out Chicago with your family?
Burton: “Yeah, there have been a couple of times, but we’ve had such a disaster with getting this furniture in our house that we really haven’t been able to do as much as we wanted to. There’s been a couple of times when we’ve been trying to go downtown and just hang out with the family.
“But my wife and I have been downtown a couple of times, been to a couple good restaurants. I love the city, it’s so clean. I feel New York is so, like, it’s open but it’s kind of top of each other. Here in Chicago, there are better restaurants and better shopping and it’s a lot less crowded. I feel like I hit the grand slam. It’s someplace we feel like we can take our kids and just hang out downtown.”
Q: What are OTAs?
Burton: “This is how the offseason is broken down: There are three phases, so phase one is four weeks and you can only be in the building for four hours. You just lift and you meet with your coaches. Basic stuff, in and out, really just to get the guys back and working out and getting in shape.
“Phase 2 is six hours in the facility and that goes on for 2-3 weeks, and then at the end of phase two you start OTAs (organized team activities). It’s basically practices with just helmets. No tackling. There are 10 OTAs, and phase three is when OTAs are basically done. So phase three is a mixture of OTAs and mini-camp.
“What the mini-camp is, is instead of being in the building for six hours, you’re in the building for eight hours, so they add two more hours. But there are only three mini-camp days, so you go 10 OTAs, three mini-camp days, then you break for the summer. On that June 7 Thursday afternoon, we got done at 1 o’clock, my family and I were on a plane at 3 and we were back in Tampa.”
Q: Throughout all these OTAs and camps and such, how do you think you’ve done? Are you happy with the mark you’ve left early on?
Burton: “Yeah, for sure, definitely happy with it. I’m not the type of guy who’s going to put a lot of pressure on myself. One of the dudes in the media asked me, ‘Am I going to be a lot more tense or a lot more uptight because I was paid a lot of money to perform?’
“At the end of the day, football has never been my first love. My family and my faith come way before football comes. To me, football is a game that I’ve been given the opportunity to play, and my job is to maximize my ability. I don’t have any pressure on number of catches or I have to score this many times.
“No, I want to win. I want to be a great teammate. I want to be known as a great teammate 10 times more than any type of stats that I ever have. So the pressure and all the hype, whatever you want to call it, I couldn’t care less what people say, what they say in the media.
“Now, for certain people, you’d better believe (the media) affects them, but for me, football is not my everything. I don’t put much pressure on myself. I’m really confident. I don’t talk about how confident I am in myself and I do get pissed off at myself when I do screw up and all that. But I know I can play football and I know I can play at a really high level.”
Q: What do you do between the end of OTAs and the beginning of training camp on July 19?
Burton: “It is a disaster right now. I think I overbooked us. We have two weddings, one in Sarasota and one in Philly. We have our ring ceremony next weekend in Philadelphia that we got to go to. I’m going on a mission trip to Dominican Republic for four days in June and then we got invited to the ESPYs. The ESPYs are July 17 and 18 in Los Angeles and we have to report for training camp on July 19. We’re all over the place. I have a three-day fishing excursion. My buddy has a huge boat. So we’ll go out for two nights and catch a bunch of swordfish and sailfish.”