Where Are They Now?: Mike BurgerJuly 29, 2014
By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer
About five years ago, Mike Burger drove his son, Jake, to a hockey tournament in Ohio. Motoring across Indiana that Friday night in the fall, the two flipped from one radio station to the next, devouring the calls of high school football commentators from schools in which neither had much investment.
But in a sense, in those voices who did care so very much, Burger returned home.
“It just really took me back,” he said.
The 1982 Jasper High School graduate recognized those voices he may never had heard before. Each just felt “a part of the fiber of the community, and that’s just so special,” he said. It’s what he remembers about his days while rumbling toward Jasper’s (still intact) single-season rushing record, and the state record at the time, on the 1981 Wildcat football squad that made it to semistate. It’s what he remembers about playing on the Huntingburg Memorial Gym floor en route to Jasper’s 25th sectional title. And it’s what he remembers about the Wildcat baseball team’s come-from-behind win over Evansville Central in the ’81 semistate, when Burger smacked the eventual game-winning home run on “one of those nights where it seems like you’re in an incredible dream,” he recalled.
“You almost want to sit there and never leave.”
Now, some 30 years later, Burger’s journey has come full circle as he and his wife, Shannon, devote countless hours to the athletic pursuits of their two children. Mike coached Jake in baseball for 11 years and still throws batting practice to the Missouri State University recruit five times a week until he takes off for school as a freshman this fall. And he’s got his daughter, Ellie, a high school sophomore whose tennis career is temporarily hindered by injuries. Burger knows it’s best to keep the coaching with the racket to his wife, a University of Evansville Hall of Famer, but the prep sports journey is one he treasures all the same.
It’s something he truly cares about. Maybe now more than ever.
He talks ardently about the multisport athlete versus modern-day specialization, a juxtaposition he and his kids tangle with all the time. Burger says he doesn’t think he could even carry his son’s bat bag today. Jake is better than he ever was, Dad confesses. But Mike also feels that playing three sports, as he did at the varsity level from his sophomore year onward at Jasper, is one of the best antidotes for injury proneness.
The injuries are what stink. Mike knows.
Burger played baseball all four years at Evansville, captaining the squad his junior and senior years. But his final season, two dislocated shoulders curtailed his involvement to just 10 games. Later on in life, Burger had gotten to be a decent golfer, but the shoulder began hurting too much. As Jake started to skate, Mike gave hockey a try. But that dang shoulder….
The four dislocations altogether have issued not-so-subtle reminders Burger shouldn’t be looking for contact like he did en route to 2,643 rushing yards in ’81, which still ranks 20th in state history.
But then again, the numbers, especially the individual numbers, have never meant much to the former farm boy.
Sport is what took him away from the fields growing up. If he played, he wouldn’t have to work. Yes, Burger excelled at every discipline — he finished his high school baseball career as the school leader in single-season and all-time home runs, total bases, batting average and all-time doubles, RBIs and runs scored, and he’s still third in homers behind Scott Rolen and Scott Kluesner. Yet the success isn’t what he misses.
“I tell my son now, ‘I’d do anything to have one more at-bat, but I would do more than that to be back in the locker room with the guys I got to play with,’” he said. “That’s what you miss.”
Seger. Weidenbenner. Bawel. Eckert. Kaiser. Merder. Brinkman. Fritch. Smith. He lists the names as if holding the roster in his hand. He apologizes for not naming everyone.
The people. The camaraderie. That’s Burger.
His professional path re-emphasizes the notion. After working at Kimball as an installation coordinator, traveling the country for a couple years following graduation, Burger went back to Evansville to earn his master’s, during which time he met Shannon, a St. Louis native, and also became an assistant coach on the Purple Aces’ baseball team. Then came a sales job with General Foods for four years until he opened a State Farm insurance agency in January 1995. Some 19 years later, it remains a passion.
“It’s still a people business,” he emphasized, and as the number of industries with interpersonal communication continues to shrink, he cherishes the chance.
Few in Chesterfield, Mo., the St. Louis suburb where he now resides, really know about Burger’s playing career. Surprisingly, he said, people are familiar with Jasper — the industries, the companies and, of course, that Rolen guy. So from there, the stories “dribble out.”
But for every tale about a towering blast and touchdown scamper, Burger looks back on the postgame rendezvous at Seger Cabin. Pretzel doughnuts from the Jasper City Bakery the next morning before watching film of Friday night’s football game. Backroadin’ that night. Mom grilling hamburgers on Sunday and barnyard basketball carrying Mike and his friends until dark.
Weekends nowadays sustain a hectic pace most of the time. Last summer, the family endured seven or eight weekends when Mike was with Jake at a baseball tournament while Shannon and Ellie ventured to a tennis showcase somewhere else in the Midwest. With Jake headed off to school, though, Mike expects to have a few more moments to breathe, and follow Ellie’s path a bit closer.
Yet he remains tied with southern Indiana. Thursday night of Strassenfest is still “one of my favorite days of the year,” said Burger, who will be back this weekend. It’s a big reunion. “I’ll always be a Jasper boy,” Burger assured. Stories are told and, of course, it’s another reminder that “like anything, you don’t really realize how special things are when you’re going through it,” he said, but “when you move away from it for the first time, you don’t take it for granted.”
Contact Joe Jasinski
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