Name: Isaiah Burse
College: Fresno State
NFL games played: 19
Games played for the Chargers: 9
Fun fact: Burse is right handed, but in an attempt to become ambidextrous he spends about an hour a day writing with his left hand to strengthen it.
Isaiah Burse has one hell of an interesting story.
It begins in 2006, when Burse was a High School student and the starting Varsity QB for Calvary Temple-Modesto in Northern California. Burse was good - very good - and led Calvary to the Playoffs. Except in 2006, Burse was just 14 years old - too young to be playing Varsity football. According to blackhatfootball.com, one of Calvary's rivals knew that Burse was ineligible to be playing, but waited until the regular season was over to report it, believing that the league would suspend Calvary from the Playoffs.
Thankfully, the league didn't bow down to that bush league tactic. In an unprecedented move, they ruled Burse ineligible for the Playoffs, but allowed Calvary to remain, and they'd go on to win the Central California Athletic Championship without Burse.
Calvary Temple soon closed, and so Burse moved schools, going to Modesto Christian. Now actually old enough to be playing, Burse was just too good for the competition, earning All-League honors as both a Sophomore and Junior, but it was in Burse's Senior year where he really excelled. Playing as the team's starting QB as well as LB, he led Modesto Christian to a 15-0 record, with 1,771 passing yards, 27 passing TDs, 1,826 rushing yards and 26 rushing TDs on offense; he also racked up 90 tackles, 7 sacks and 5 interceptions on defense. Playing for the CIF Small School State Championship, the defense keyed in on the explosive Burse in an attempt to stop Modesto - so the humble, selfless, Burse ignored the statsheet and let his teammates lead Modesto to a 44-40 victory to win the title.
Modesto Christian had not only beaten schools with a far bigger enrolment, but they also became the first team in Northern California to ever finish a season with a 15-0 record. For the big part Burse played in accomplishing those feats, he was given multiple accolades: He was named Max Preps Small School State Player of the Year, the Modesto Bee’s Player of the Year and the 2009 Sac Joaquin Section MVP.
For all Burse's on the field accolades, however, the most important thing that happened to him was off the field. No win - not even the State Championship - was bigger than the day he first met Mark Dobbins.
According to Ron Clements (who's article on Burse is fantastic), their relationship first started when Burse was one of many local kids that Dobbins helped to train. The pair quickly developed a tight bond, and Dobbins and his wife became almost like Burse's adoptive parents (Burse once said "it's like they're my parents, pretty much"). It's important to note that Burse does have his own set of parents. However, according to Clements, his mother lives in Arizona and wasn't involved in raising Burse, while his father did turn up to games, but was quiet and kept himself to himself. Whatever the situation with his parents, Burse didn't have a stable home, bouncing around from family member to family member - while still going out and playing stellar football every week.
The instability ended after Burse's Sophomore year of High School, when Burse moved out of his Great Aunt's house and in with the Dobbins. The arrangement worked for both - Burse had finally found a 'permanent' home, with people who were family in every way but blood - and the Dobbins' were able to fill the void that was left in their home after their own son, now fully grown, had moved out.
Mark Dobbins had been looking after Burse in a way that his 'real' family had never done even before Burse moved in. When Burse needed a lift to school, Dobbins would pick him up and drive him there - and eventually decided to quit his job and go and work at Modesto Christian so he could make sure Burse was on time every day. According to Dobbins, "he [Burse] hated being late. It bothered him. And it worked out for me."
It's an interesting dynamic, with Burse in essence having two families, and Dobbins summed it up like this: "He loves his family, but he knows that they’re different. When he needs things to be serious and taken care of, he comes to Michelle [Dobbins] and I. But he still visits his family. That’s his family and it is what it is. That’s just what he got. He loves them and likes to spend time with them."
'Different' is one word for it. Allegedly, Burse returned to his Aunt's house on Spring Break from College in his Freshman year, only to be told "I don’t know where you’re going to sleep or what you’re going to eat because I didn’t know you were coming." Burse simply turned out the door and went back to stay with the Dobbins'. By this point, it was clear Mark's work with Burse on the field had paid off. He'd chosen to play at Fresno State as a receiver, playing alongside Davante Adams and catching passes from Derek Carr. By the time he returned to the Dobbins household that Freshman year, he'd already had 696 All-Purpose yards there, impressing both as a returner and a receiver.
Those return skills were put on full display in his Sophomore year, as Burse set the NCAA FBS Record for most Kickoffs returned in a season with 75. His 1,606 KR yards that season also make him the all-time leader in KR return yards for a single season, per Sports Reference. He showed in his Junior and Senior seasons that he wasn't just a returner, with 851 receiving yards in his Junior year and 99 catches for 1,026 receiving yards in his Senior year.
Burse went undrafted in the 2014 NFL Draft, but quickly signed a contract with the Denver Broncos. He made it onto their 53 man roster, and saw a little bit of action as a punt returner, but was placed onto their Practice Squad in December. The Broncos handed Burse a futures contract in January 2015, but his name was on the list of final cuts in September, and he spent about two weeks on the Steelers Practice Squad before they also decided to release him. A month later, the Chargers placed Burse on their Practice Squad, and he spent the rest of the season there before being given a futures contract in January 2016.
Burse was able to make the opening day 53 man roster with the Chargers last season, but was waived when the team bought in Dexter McCluster (that went well...) and re-signed to the Practice Squad. He'd be added to the 53 and demoted to the Practice Squad once more in October before being added to the 53 man roster again in November, where he spent the rest of the year, appearing in 9 games but never recording a catch, although he did field 9 kickoff and 15 punt returns.
The Chargers are loaded at WR, and if they decide to only carry 5, Burse has no shot of making the team. If they carry 6, he has a chance. There'd be lots of competition for that 6th spot, but the added value Burse brings as a returner - and the Chargers have really struggled to find a good return man as of late - gives him a leg up on the competition.
As far as I'm aware, Burse should still be eligible for a spot on the Practice Squad. He has spent time there in three separate seasons, which would normally rule him out, but as he only spent four weeks there in 2014 that won't be counted as a season on the Practice Squad. If the Chargers want to give him a Practice Squad spot, they can do - but it's debatable whether putting a fourth year player on the Practice Squad is really a good use of resources.
Only time will tell if Burse is able to make the team, but this is somebody that I'm really rooting for. He didn't grow up in the easiest of circumstances, but is by all accounts a very genuine, humble person. Mark Dobbins said that “He is clean as a whistle. He has nothing negative in his past. Not one person has said anything negative about him. He’s never been in trouble with the law, never been in trouble with anybody, loves to help people out and loves helping kids."
It's funny, but that description to me reminds me of another Mark Dobbins - and we could all do with more Mark Dobbins' in the world.
Best of luck, Isaiah.