Former Miami Hurricanes cornerback Artie Burns once wanted to be an Olympian, one of his heroes being legendary sprinter Bob Hayes, the only man to win Olympic gold and a Super Bowl ring.
Burns and his mother, Dana Smith, who tragically succumbed to a heart attack at age 44 last October, told the Miami Herald as much in February 2014, when during an interview, Smith said, “It can be done — Olympic medals and Super Bowls. Professionally, I don’t know what I’d rather him do. It’s so nerve-racking I don’t even want to think about it.’’
For now, the 6-0, 193-pound Burns, a former junior American record holder in the 60-meter hurdles, is choosing football, a sport in which he will likely earn millions to ensure a more secure future for his 19-month-old son AJ and two younger brothers — all of whom will settle with Burns and his girlfriend Ella in their new NFL city. If Burns, who left UM after his junior season, isn’t picked in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night, he is projected to be gone by Friday’s second round.
“Artie will blossom and be one of the great cornerbacks in the NFL,’’ said Miami native and six-time world track and field champion Bershawn Jackson, the 2008 Beijing Olympic bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles and gold medalist as a member of the U.S. 1600-meter relay. “I’ve known Artie since he was a baby and I was really good friends with Dana.
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“My dad was my best friend and he died of a massive heart attack Oct. 10. A week after his funeral they called me to say Dana died. Like my dad, she was the centerpiece of their lives — didn’t miss one game, one track meet, one school event. I reached out to Artie as soon as it happened. I told him to grieve and then be at peace. He said, ‘I’m going to take care of my little brothers, because that’s what my mama would want me to do.’ ’’
Burns, a Miami Northwestern High graduate and state hurdles champion, will turn 21 Sunday. His grandparents — Dana’s parents — will be there to help him celebrate the draft and his birthday in a private Miami Beach location with Thomas, 16, Jordan, 13, his agent/close family friend and former Hurricanes star Melvin Bratton, among others.
“They helped me along this whole way,’’ Burns said recently of his inner circle. “That would be something my mom would want, too.”
Burns is known for his aggressive play and ended the 2015 season with an ACC-leading six interceptions, the most by a Hurricane since Sean Taylor had 10 in 2003. He started all 12 games in which he competed, finishing the year with 36 tackles, five pass breakups, a fumble recovery and the picks.
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper on Tuesday published a list of his top 300 NFL prospects for this weekend’s draft. He has Burns as No. 31, equating to the last pick in the first round by the Denver Broncos.
“He’s a little grabby, which may lead to penalties once he’s in the league,’’ Kiper said of Burns, who ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. “But I tell you what, he’s got range [and] he’s got tremendous recovery ability.’’
Kiper had UM safety Deon Bush (4.53 40), the only other Hurricane that NFL analysts strongly agree will get drafted, as his 181st overall prospect — equating to the sixth pick in the sixth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The 6-0, 199-pound Bush, a physically gifted player also from Miami, did not have the breakout season NFL types were expecting, but nonetheless tallied 50 tackles, a sack, two fumble recoveries, six pass breakups and an interception.
“Being underrated is nothing but fuel to the fire,’’ the ever-positive Bush posted on Twitter early this month, saying last week that he was “hungry’’ and couldn’t wait for his opportunity.
As for Bush’s former backfield cohort, Burns, at least one NFL team, a source said, has already researched schools for siblings Thomas and Jordan should Artie be selected by that franchise. They now live together in a Miami apartment, with Burns driving the boys back and forth to separate schools and often attending practices — Thomas is a sophomore Northwestern football and track star already orally committed to UM and Jordan plays youth football and runs for the Northwest Express Track Club.
“Artie is a level-headed, caring young man,’’ said Barbara Cason, his grandmother who lives in Miramar with her husband John. “He’s very quiet, but driven. The grace of God has carried him through. The boys will finish the school year here. They’re a little nervous, but he’s their big brother and they look up to him.’’
Burns’ grandfather, a retired Miami-Dade Solid Waste truck driver, said he and his wife “are not going to let anyone fold.’’
“I send Artie scriptures after I pray to give him inspiration to get through the day,’’ John Cason said. “Grandma and Grandpa will always be there for him.’’
Burns’ father, Artie Tyrone Burns Sr., began serving a 25-year sentence for cocaine trafficking on Feb. 28, 2006, and hasn’t seen his namesake since Artie was in fourth grade.
“I am so proud of Artie,’’ Dana Smith told the Miami Herald shortly before she died. “Through all the adversity of not having a father, he’s overcome it and has been a positive role model for his family.’’
Bratton said Burns has committed to buy equipment for a football camp to be held at the Northwest Boys and Girls Club of Miami-Dade, using the remaining money from the $40,000 Hurricanes fans contributed in only six hours to a GoFundMe campaign initiated by UM after his mother’s death.
“Artie has stepped up,’’ Bratton said. “He became a man overnight.’’
Come Thursday, Burns — an ABC camera crew following his every move — will be enveloped in the love of friends and family.
“It’s been tough,’’ Burns conceded. “But you know I have the support from my family, so everything has been good.’’
Top UM prospects
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6 or 7