On Sept. 24, 1989, Buffalo Bills defensive back Derrick Burroughs made what he thought was a routine tackle against the Houston Oilers. At impact the 1985 first-rounder's neck was awkwardly pushed forward, sustaining damage between the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae. Burroughs limply crashed to the hard turf of the Astrodome, limbs numb and playing career over. Burroughs endured 24 hours of paralysis and many more hours in spinal specialists' offices looking for just one doctor to give him the go-ahead to return to the field. On Nov. 15, Burroughs reluctantly announced his retirement at the age of 27.
21 years later, after an array of coaching jobs in NFL Europe, Arena Football, the XFL, and all three NCAA divisions, Burroughs took to the sidelines as head coach of the Division II Lane College Dragons. Burroughs also serves as Athletic Director.
For three seasons Burroughs has utilized his extensive football background and taken a program that was winless the season before he wielded the headset and lifted it to a .500 record (5-5) in 2012. Burroughs' coaching has led to on-field success for Lane, and also helped one of his players reach the highest level of football on the planet. Appropriately, he is a defensive back and heading to Buffalo.
Vernon Kearney, cornerback from Bradenton, FL, signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent. Kearney was a boundary corner for Lane College where he finished the 2012 season with 24 tackles, two interceptions, six pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery—good enough for All-Conference honors in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and a shot at the Bills roster.
At 6'2" 185 lb., Kearney is long and lean. With his build and mid-4.4 speed, Kearney can be a major nuisance in man coverage for receivers. He proved that on the first day of Rookie Minicamp during 7-on-7, sticking with speedster (and Olympian) Marquise Goodwin one-on-one on a fly route and breaking up a well-thrown ball. The play provided the most exciting moment of the day and offered a glimpse of the player that could be molded out of Kearney's raw athletic ability.
"You know, that [play] was interesting," Kearney said with a smile. "I've run with some fast guys before. He's a world class [athlete] so for me to be somewhere by him lets me know where I'm at."
This raw ability is what caught the eyes of Bills scouts.
"A Division II prospect that's raw, but he's got height and speed," said Bills scout Tom Roth of Kearney. "He's a good developmental prospect and former Bills DB Derrick Burroughs was his head coach there. There are good traits there and Coach (Donnie) Henderson just needs to get some technique work in with him."
Kearney credits Burroughs' frequent use of man defense and NFL experience for the development of his game.
"He's not scared to blitz, we blitzed a lot, so he puts a lot of weight on his corners to play man and stick with those deep balls," said Kearney. "We've played man 90 plays before in some games I can remember. He puts his hat on that, and I take pride in being in shape, my speed, and my hips. They're the stuff he teaches you.
"He's a big part of getting me to where I'm at today."
Kearney is thankful for his time at Lane College, and looks forward to building on the foundation laid out under Burroughs' tutelage.
"I feel like I have some great coaches here in my two coaches, Coach Henderson and Coach (Samson) Brown," said Kearney. "I'm just ready to take everything in like a sponge and get better every day.
"It's just a blessing to be out here with the Buffalo Bills and I'm thankful and I'm just happy and ready to keep working."