Burger still record holder 40 years laterOctober 12, 2021
By GREG ECKERLE
In the long-running history of Jasper power football, nobody has run farther with the ball than Mike Burger in 1981. His astonishing single-season rushing record of 2,643 yards still stands after 40 years.
As does his record for the most carries in a single game, an incredible 54 in the 1981 Class AA regional championship victory over Tell City.
His teammates joked that he developed his ball-carrying moves from chasing turkeys, and Burger admits there's a lot of truth there. Long-time assistant coach Joe Rohleder noted that Burger had great peripheral vision, that he could spot holes missed by other running backs. Burger credits that to advice from his freshman football coach, Dennis Forler. And Burger credits his football-carrying endurance to a motivating comment made by Rohleder early in the 1981 season.
In three varsity seasons from 1979 to 1981, Burger showed an impressive football versatility, handling 11 different responsibilities. As a sophomore, he was primarily a slot back/receiver, was switched to quarterback as a junior, then became a tailback in 1981. He also at times played cornerback and safety, returned punts, returned kickoffs, and kicked off, kicked points after touchdowns, kicked field goals, and also quick-kicked one time.
His early conditioning was indeed the work on his family's turkey farm. "Without knowing it, it was incredible training," said Burger. When up to 300 turkeys would escape into a nearby woods, he would help herd them back, using all types of lateral movement that came in handy later on a football field. And carrying 50-pound feed buckets, stepping over turkey pens, served as good weight training.
Forler alerted him to a vision advantage he didn't realize he had. "Coach Forler told me to work harder to keep my head up, and to keep my eyes moving. He said he saw it in me, but not all the time. From that moment on, when I did that, I could see blocks setting up, I could see angles, and it totally changed everything. It was such a gift he gave me."
As a junior in 1980, Burger had success as a running quarterback in the option. But that approach stalled in the second game in 1981, against Vincennes, and Burger was switched to tailback at halftime. "It all clicked, everybody was in the right spot, and we went on a great run," recalled Burger. The Wildcats cruised to an undefeated regular season as Burger's ball carries ramped up considerably. He went from just two carries in the opener to 23 against Vincennes after the second-half position switch, to 34 against rival Tell City. About that time came the Rohleder comment that sparked an upgraded zeal for conditioning in Burger, this time without turkeys.
As his ball carries increased, Burger only played defense in special circumstances. He remembered Rohleder, who wanted to use him on defense, asking him in one game if he was tired. "I answered honestly, I said, 'yeah.' And he said, 'Well, you're not running enough during the week then.' I will never forget that. He was right. You've got to do more to prepare for it. So I ran extra sprints and distances after practices. Coach Rohleder taught me with that comment that the ultimate difference is what you're doing when nobody is watching. I had such respect for him, and knew he was genuine. I've taught that to my own kids. Because that advice allowed me to run the ball as much as I did that season."
Burger quickly credited his rushing totals to the blocking of the offensive line and Tom Weidenbenner, a battering-ram fullback who later played at Indiana University. "Weidenbenner was a freight train, the way he blocked," said Burger. "And he was a good running back. The line was a great unit. The defense was good. And Coach Jerry Brewer was receptive to hearing what you had to say. He was still in charge, but he was open-minded."
Burger's record 54 carries, out of 65 offensive plays, came in a come-from-behind 20-14 regional win at Tell City. He rushed for 307 yards, scored all 20 points and even threw Jasper's only pass completion, a key third down conversion to Bill Kaiser. "That game was a brawl," said Burger. "They beat me up pretty good, but nothing dirty. It was a charged-up atmosphere, fans were yelling at me an hour before the game. But I loved it, it was pretty cool."
The pounding gave Burger a left shoulder bone bruise that lingered through the next game, an excruciating 14-13 semi-state loss to eventual state champion Franklin Central. A Burger touchdown pass to Andy Fritch had pulled Jasper to within one point with 1:21 to play. "Coach Brewer asked us what we wanted to do, to either kick the extra point or go for the win," said Burger. "That was a pretty cool moment, even though it didn't work out." The two-point conversion try failed, as Burger was stopped a yard short. "I still think about it. Sure, I wanted the ball in my hands. But with 40 years hindsight, I should have said, I'll be the decoy, I'll draw them off, let's give the ball to Tom (Weidenbenner). But it would have been hard for Coach Brewer to do that, because if that doesn't work, everybody's going to criticize him, and that wouldn't have been fair for him."
Phil Smith, a defensive back on the 1981 team, said, "Mike Burger was a great leader, unselfish, and very grounded. He took a beating when he played, but he never complained, he was tough. He had great lateral movement, he could see the whole field better than anybody, and could wait until the play developed. He made us all better football players. We knew we had a shot. We came up short by just one play."
Burger was named All-State in 1981, along with center Scott Seger and defensive tackle Scott Brinkman. Burger's rushing total stood as the state's single-season record for the next 11 years. He was also named the Most Valuable Back on the South All-Star team in Indiana's 1982 North-South All-Star football game at IU.
But Burger was much more than a football player. He was a starting guard on Jasper's 1981 basketball sectional champions. He was named to the 1982 baseball All-State first team as an infielder. He played four years of baseball at the University of Evansville, and was team captain his junior and senior years. When he graduated from Jasper, he was the school's leader in single season home runs with 10 and in career home runs with 19. He now ranks fifth and third, respectively.
And he had a flair for dramatic home runs. His ninth-inning bomb against Evansville Central gave Jasper a 3-2 victory and the 1981 semi-state championship. Another memorable homer was one he promised to hit for a teacher, the late Jack Leas. Burger always wanted Leas to attend a game, but Leas steadfastly declined. "A lot of kids were scared of him, but I really loved the guy," said Burger. "We hit it off, and I badgered him to just come to one game. He said he hated baseball, but he finally relented, saying, 'I'll only come if you will hit a home run.' I said, 'OK, I'll hit a home run.' He shows up and walks straight into the press box. I hit a home run in the bottom of the first. Radio broadcaster Bob Simmers told me later that Leas left as soon as I hit the home run. It was so funny. I razzed him back at school and he said, 'I didn't say how long I'd stay, I said I'd come and you had to hit a home run, and both happened.' So he was there about 15 minutes."
Burger's son, Jake, is also quite the baseball player. He made a near-miraculous journey to his Major League debut with the Chicago White Sox in July 2021. The White Sox made Jake the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft. But he tore his left Achilles tendon twice and Mike was certain he was going to retire. "We were so proud of all he had overcome," said Mike. "We had seen the really low periods. I'll never forget him telling me, in December of 2019, with tears streaming down his face, that he couldn't do it anymore." Mike urged him not to make that decision until he finished his rehabilitation. Jake persevered, his competitiveness took over, and he hit his own memorable home run, his Major League first, with his parents in the stands in Chicago in July.
Mike, who lives near St. Louis, still listens to Jasper Wildcat games on the radio. "I have nothing but love and great feelings about being from Jasper," he said.
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