West Valley Preps
Like many successful high school football players, Centennial safety Amare Burks dreamed of playing for the universities he saw on television — and a couple, Arizona and Iowa State, showed some interest.
Five years after his final game with the Coyotes, Burks is at home playing for an NAIA school in its first year of competitive football. Yet his second college stop finds a young man with more perspective and peace in his surroundings.
He played two years at Adams State University in Colorado, then waited two years to play again for Ottawa University Arizona, going through the equivalent of a redshirt year in 2017 with the other early arrivals at the new university in Surprise.
“I was thinking that (the program is for real) in the spring, when we started getting better recruits and started practicing on the turf field,” Burks said. “You feel more secure here in this place. It’s like a family. Over time I got closer to the school because they say they’re going to do something and then they do it. When that happens it does nothing but build trust.”
Burks is a junior in eligibility and starts at one safety spot for the Spirit. He is third on the team in tackles, with 46 total.
OUAZ has a 4-3 record, and an older, wiser Burks realizes he can get a game at any level of college.
“Everybody wants to go to the best school possible. At first when I started getting recruited by DII schools I had bad thoughts about it. Now, being older and seeing the competition at all the levels, it’s not much different. There’s good competition pretty much anywhere you go,” Burks said.
He said the only major difference from Division II to NAIA is size along the offensive line.
Burks said he learned the importance of maintaining good grades and teamwork during his two years at Centennial.
“Richard Taylor is like a guru when it comes to teaching and coaching. He prepares you for life, and to be honest I learned so much from him. I thought it was all about football but he taught about school and life lessons,” he said. “After leaving there, when I actually saw what he was talking about I looked back and said he was right,” Burks said.
During his two years at Adams State, Burks said he liked the coaches and the small farm town setting of Alamosa. He decided to transfer after the coaches that recruited him left and looked into new options.
“I always go to Centennial in the summers and work out with them. I talk to the kids and the coaches,” Burks said. “I saw one of the (Ottawa) coaches there recruiting and that was the first time I heard of it.”
Centennial was a natural first recruiting stop for the new college team in the West Valley, and OUAZ coach Mike Nesbitt, and they were looking for more than seniors-to-be on the 2017 state champions.
“He’s one of the originals from the first recruiting class. We knew about him from Adams State and a couple other places, but we heard about him from the coaches at Centennial,” Nesbitt said. “When we started recruiting the area, at every place we went we weren’t only recruiting the high school guy that was on the team we were asking, ‘Hey, do you have any players that came back home.’ We were looking for guys like Amare that had maybe been gone a year or two at another school in a cold-weather climate. That was part of our original model. We knew that for this first season, we needed some older players.”
OUAZ had 125 players show interest and 108 make it through the end of drills in November 2017. Yet only 35 from that group suited up for the Spirit in their first game Aug. 26.
Nesbitt called “the originals” a “commendable group of guys.” He said the coaching staff will always remember this group.
Last year the Spirit did not have locker rooms, and carried travel bags to practice or lift at sites around Surprise. Most of the time OUAZ practiced at 8 Acre Park (now Mark Coronado Park) early in the mornings, since youth sports were there every night.
Often, players would get up at 5 a.m. and practice at 6 so they could be at class by 9.
“It was interesting to say the least, but I can’t forget this — playing in the grass field,” Burks said. “That whole group is tight. We sort of joke about certain things, that people recruited afterward wouldn’t get.”
From his previous experience, Burks had formed a friendship with senior Kenneth Steele. He’s known fellow former Coyote Marcus Farria — out since early September with an ACL injury — for almost a decade.
Burks said he knew the team was good before the season started. He’s taken on a leadership role as one of the veterans.In this case though, Burks and other leaders are called on to solve problems more than pass on traditions.
“He’s a super coachable guy and a good athlete. But that group also understands that they’re a big extension of the coaching staff because we don’t have a senior class or 100 years of tradition. But on the other end, we also don’t have 100 years of bad tradition. If we don’t like what we’re doing then we don’t do it anymore,” Nesbitt said.
Nesbitt said Burks has a good skill set and fits well with defensive coordinator Mike Bethea.
Recruiting is word of mouth, Nesbitt said, and the best way for OUAZ to recruit is to have a guy from a really good high school football program enjoy the program and play well.
“People recognize him when he plays in a game. He has good name value when he plays for our program and he plays well. And he’s a great kid. It becomes a good friendship and partnership rather than player-coach,” Nesbitt said.
Burks said he also feels at home at the university with a Christian foundation, which dovetails with the communications major’s career path.
“I want to be a minister and spread the word, relate to people and give people knowledge they probably didn’t know,” Burks said. “I go to a lot of churches to learn.”