- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

OK, he’ll admit it. A little sliver of cyberspace holds a place in Jerome Burney’s heart.

Go ahead, punch in his name on YouTube, and up pops a highlight tape - one friends are known to play whenever the Maryland forward happens to be in the room.

It’s a montage of ultra-athletic plays, actions anticipated from a human pogo stick when he’s introduced even for short spurts on a basketball court.

But even this amalgam of Burney’s finest moments - blocked shots and dunks aplenty - starts off with a foreboding sight: a 6-foot-9 true freshman wearing a brown shirt and pants rather than a practice jersey, ambling through the crowd at Maryland Madness with a broken ankle.

He has endured four fractures, the latest a broken sesamoid bone in his right foot in late February. As his teammates stay sharp with pickup games, Burney isn’t sure whether his career will continue this fall. By the end of the month, he plans to decide whether he’ll play competitively again.

A harsh blow, but Burney’s series of fractures prepared him for the moment his career would end, whenever it happened.

“After my third one, I kind of saw it,” Burney said. “The fourth one made me realize it even more. It’s not as hard as it would be if it was earlier in my career.”

‘Feet like a bird’

Muscles bulge from Burney’s arms, and his slick, clean-shaven head only enhances his athletic frame. It’s not too difficult to envision him averaging a triple-double (yep, 10 blocks a game) as a senior at Westlake High School outside Atlanta.

But glance down to the floor, and inside those huge shoes are surprisingly brittle feet.

Burney broke his left ankle even before practice started as a true freshman, then suffered a stress fracture of the fourth metatarsal in his left foot later that season. His right side wasn’t spared either; Burney missed much of last season with separate breaks in that foot.

“They say certain guys just have feet that are not made for the sport,” said Paul Ricci, Maryland’s strength and conditioning coach. “Look at the guy. He’s put together like an anatomy model. But he has feet like a bird - bony and flat.”

Burney remained healthy his redshirt freshman season, and there were glimpses of a valuable rebounding-and-defense option emerging for a size-deficient team the next year.

Yet he earned scant playing time early last season before logging 11 minutes against George Washington. Two days later, the kinesiology major felt something in practice and instantly knew the problem.

“I thought, ‘This is a stress fracture in my third metatarsal,’ ” Burney said. “I was thinking that. The only two reasons I knew was because it happened in my left foot, too, and I took anatomy, so I knew about my bone structure. Metatarsals, I didn’t forget about. Anything in the foot, I didn’t forget about.”

So it was time to rehab and reacquaint himself with a walking boot (which he was known to ditch surreptitiously while making food runs during his freshman year). Again.

Sixteen games passed before coach Gary Williams inserted Burney on Feb. 17 at Clemson. Predictably, he was gassed within a couple of minutes. But he still played and even added to his highlight reel - a dunk over Tigers star Trevor Booker.

Ten days later, he was completing a basic close-out drill when he heard a crack. Moments later, he looked over to Ricci and athletic trainer J.J. Bush and said he broke his foot. Ricci thought Burney was kidding.

“He was so in tune with his body. It was completely innocuous,” Ricci said. “He didn’t get down, didn’t pout, didn’t throw a chair. He’s just kind of been there, done that.”

Williams couldn’t recall a player so beset by ailments in his 20 years with the Terps, marveling at a stretch of several years when the team was relatively injury-free and dealt with few if any broken bones.

“We all forget these guys are 6-8, 235 pounds - that’s about what Jerome is,” Williams said. “Some people have a strong bone structure. Some seem to get fractures [more often] than others. I just feel badly Jerome hasn’t had a chance to see how good he can be. That’s all you want.”

What’s next?

Burney has remained a fixture in the weight room since the season ended. But the guy dubbed the Energizer Burney last year for his hustle and athleticism hasn’t jumped more than a few inches off the ground since his latest injury.

And even if everything looks good in July, it’s no guarantee another problem will surface.

“The biggest predictor of injury in an athlete is past injuries by far,” Ricci said. “I could take all the guys up and have them jump off the roof of Comcast [Center], and without a doubt the guy most likely to get injured is him just because of his past.”

Burney doesn’t necessarily consider himself cursed.

“In a way I do, but at the same I’ve been able to concentrate on my academics and made great friends here,” Burney said. “I mean, it’s a curse basketballwise, but otherwise I probably wouldn’t have expanded my world if I hadn’t had any injuries. It’s a gift and a curse at the same time.”

Burney already is calculating what he’ll do if his career ends. He could apply to the NCAA for a medical hardship and potentially not count against Maryland’s 13 scholarships, then graduate after wrapping up his last 27 credits by the spring.

He’ll remain a part of the program regardless and could get a jump on a potential career as a personal trainer. Ricci said Burney could work as his assistant, a de facto high-level internship before leaving school.

Or, in an ideal situation, Burney will receive a bit of good news for a change.

“He’s one of the people you root for,” Williams said. “We hope all of a sudden the doctor says he’ll be able to start working hard in August. That might not happen, but you hope it does.”

Burney seems at peace. His on-court career has yet to unfold as he hoped, though he also points out he can literally walk away from the game.

There are also the memories of coming home from games to find 30 messages on his Facebook page from friends who saw him deliver an impossible-to-miss dunk or block.

“Yes, I didn’t average 20 points a game [in college] and I didn’t have as many blocks as I did in high school,” Burney said. “I didn’t do a lot of stuff. But at the same time, there’s probably guys who had 20 points but haven’t been on ESPN, a lot of people who don’t even have a highlight tape of themselves on YouTube. I have those things. There’s not too much I can ask for.

“If it ends now, I would be satisfied. I’m not saying I’d be happy, but I’d be satisfied. I guess I’ll be ready to move on to whatever else I’m going to do.”

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