Photo courtesy of Diana Knight
Aldridge Gardens founders Kay and Eddie Aldridge with speaker Gary Burley.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Gary Burley was a hulking defensive lineman known for creating havoc for quarterbacks as a star player at the University of Pittsburgh and in the NFL.
Today, Burley leads an organization in Birmingham called Pro Start Academy that helps mentor young athletes and provides tips on how they can achieve success on and off the football field.
On July 9, Burley shared his story of faith and perseverance at Aldridge Gardens in Hoover before members of the Propagators, a group of donors of $1,000 or more to the gardens. Burley talked about his life over the past four years, as he has survived life-threatening ailments including cancer, a bone marrow transplant and a bout of salmonella poisoning that put him in a wheelchair for six months.
Burley said he survived due to the grace of God and the loving support of his wife, Bobbie Knight, a longtime Alabama Power executive who refused to let him give up.
Burley, 61, grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where he was a all-star high school athlete before becoming a star All-American defensive end at the University of Pittsburgh. He played in the NFL for 10 years with the Cincinnati Bengals (he was on the team’s 1982 squad that lost a 26-21 Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49ers) and Atlanta Falcons.
Nine years ago, Burley founded Pro Start Academy “to give student-athletes a competitive advantage by building a bridge to success on and off the field of play.”
After he married Knight, Burley relocated Pro Start Academy to Birmingham. A few years ago, he developed cancer and survived months of grueling chemo. His health improved until early 2014 when one morning he got out of bed and was unable to stand.
“I went to the doctor and they said salmonella poisoning had gotten into my knee,” Burley said. “Now how do you get salmonella in your knee. I figured if it’s gonna happen to anybody, it’s gonna happen to me.”
While in the hospital, Burley got an infection.
I said, OK God, I know this is a test, but cannot I say I passed the test and move forward,” Burley said. “For six months, I was in a wheelchair and just started walking again a month ago. All that time I had my precious Boo [Bobbie] right next to me encouraging me, making me get up out of bed.”
Burley said along with his wife’s encouragement, what kept him fighting while in the hospital and during rehab “was the dream that I had to help kids through Pro Start Academy. My dream was to develop citizen athletes, not all stars. I wanted to give kids an opportunity to be successful not just on the field, but off the field.”
Burley asked the Aldridge Gardens Propagators group to imagine how life would be if at age 12, all of them had learned how to balance a checkbook and invest.
“The successes we’ve had in this room would be far greater,” Burley said. “Couple that with learning how to market yourself, learning how to project the images that companies want. You’ll get great positions. We don’t just want you to get a job, we want you to get a position.”
Burley said Pro Start Academy is open to boys aged 12 to 18. His board includes former University of Alabama and NFL running back Bobby Humphrey and Auburn University and NFL running back Joe Cribbs.
For youth who can’t afford the program, he provides scholarships. He has speakers from the University of Alabama come speak to students and parents on how to get accepted in colleges and other university programs.
“We don’t turn any kid down,” he said. “We want parents involved because they need to learn how to market their kid and how to be successful beyond sports. The next step is to expand this beyond football to basketball and others. Lacrosse and soccer are getting really big now, so we could get girls involved.”