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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE– On the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 22, while his teammates were taking on Louisville in an ACC football game at Scott Stadium, Richard Burney was less than a mile away, undergoing tests at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
The results jarred Burney, who had started UVA’s first three games at defensive end. Doctors learned he had a medical condition — Burney prefers to not discuss the specifics publicly — that would sideline him for the rest of the season and might end his football career.
During his stay in the hospital, Burney recalled this week at the McCue Center, flooding his mind were questions for which, at that point, he had no answers.
“How long is it going to take for me to get back healthy? Am I going to be able to play football again? How does this affect me academically, and how does this affect me psychologically?”
Some of those questions remain unanswered, but Burney, a 6-4, 280-pound redshirt junior from Chesapeake, has maintained a positive mindset as he tackles the challenges in front of him. He’s still on track to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. He still hopes to play football again for the Cavaliers.
“He’s been amazing,” said Vic So’oto, who coaches UVA’s defensive linemen. “He’s handled it with grace and with a newfound energy to get better and then attack what comes. Nothing’s guaranteed, but he hasn’t batted an eye or gone south and thought, ‘Woe is me.’ “
Burney, who lives with teammates Dominic Sheppard, Robert Snyder and Gladimir Paul, is grateful he hasn’t had to fight this battle alone.
“I can lean on my teammates and my coaches and my family as well,” Burney said. “Everybody’s been so supportive, and I couldn’t thank them any more, because I couldn’t even imagine trying to get through this by myself.”
A graduate of Hickory High School, Burney first began having problems on Sept. 16, the day after Virginia defeated Ohio in Nashville, Tenn. 
“I noticed that there was something going on in my body, in my back and abdomen area,” Burney said. “I thought it was just back spasms at first.”
He practiced on Sept. 18 and 19 and expected to play that Saturday against Louisville. But his symptoms worsened. UVA’s medical staff held him out of practice on Sept. 20 and 21, and when Burney arrived at Scott Stadium on Sept. 22, he recalled, the “doctors took a look at me and said, ‘You need to go to the hospital.’ “
His parents, in town for the Louisville game, stayed with him at the hospital. Burney was released the next day, and doctors have closely monitored his condition since then. He was able to resume physical activity in October, on a limited basis, and has slowly increased his workload.
On days when the Cavaliers practice, Burney trains with the team’s injured players under the direction of the strength and conditioning staff. He’s not allowed to do certain lifts in the weight room yet, but he’s able to work up a sweat each day.
“I’m just trying to do everything I can to stay involved and healthy,” Burney said. “I wasn’t going to be sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I want to do everything I can to try to get back, so if I am able to play again, I’m going to be ready.”
He’s been examined him periodically, and each time the results have been encouraging, Burney said. He’s scheduled to be tested again in January, Burney said, after which “the doctors and my family are all going to sit down, and then that’s when the decision will be made.
“The biggest thing for me is being ready, because it would be such a shame if I could play and I’m not prepared. I’m approaching everything I do like I am coming back to play. It’s just all about waiting and making sure everything’s OK.”
During his first three seasons in the program – Burney received another year of eligibility after suffering an injury in 2015 – he played tight end. At the end of the 2017 regular season, though, he switched to defensive end, where attrition had left the Wahoos perilously thin, and played that position in the Military Bowl.
He stayed on defense this year and locked up a starting job. Burney was among the 12 players honored as The Dirty Dozen for excellence in director of football development and performance Shawn Griswold’s offseason program.

Four players were selected from each of three position groups: skill (running backs, wide receivers, quarterbacks, defensive backs), big skill (linebackers, tight ends) and big (linemen).

“To Richard’s credit, he has been above and beyond what we expected of him as a D-lineman,” said So’oto, a former NFL player. “I really believe if he’s allowed to play again, he’s going to get a great shot at the next level, just because of his work ethic and his size and his ability.”
Burney, who wears jersey No. 16, remains an integral part of the program. So’oto said he pairs Burney with recruiting targets when they visit UVA.
“I think his story’s unique, and he just has an air about him,” So’oto said. “I just know he’s going to be successful in whatever he does, because of how he attacks problems.”

The Cavaliers’ base defense is the 3-4, and even when Burney was healthy they had little depth on the line. Losing him in September “was a huge blow,” So’oto said, and another starter on the D-line, sophomore Mandy Alonso, suffered a season-ending injury Nov. 2 against Pittsburgh.
That left the ‘Hoos with only one experienced defensive lineman: redshirt junior Eli Hanback. In UVA’s regular-season finale last Friday at Virginia Tech, true freshman Aaron Faumui and redshirt freshman Tommy Christ started up front with Hanback.
“The good thing about this year is a lot of guys got playing time that probably weren’t expecting to play, and they got a lot of experience,” So’oto said. “If Richard is back, we’re going to be stout [in 2019].”
To see health issues deplete the defensive line “was tough,” Burney said, “but things like this that happen also build fortitude. I feel like the things that happened in the D-line room, with me going down, Mandy going down, and all the injuries we’ve had, it’s made us stronger, and it’s going to make us stronger in the future.
The ‘Hoos finished the regular season with a 7-5 record, and on Sunday they’ll learn to which bowl game they’re headed. Burney will have to sit out this postseason, but he’ll continue to break down film, as he has all fall.
“You really learn a lot when you step back and really just study the game without playing,” Burney said. “You learn a lot of things that you might not catch up on when you are playing.”
If all goes as hoped, Burney will be able to take the lessons he’s learned through film study and in position meetings and apply them on the field again. In the meantime, he follows his doctors’ instructions and waits, staying as positive and patient as possible.
“It’s just a tough deal for a kid like that,” So’oto said. “You just want the best for him. Hopefully the ball bounces his way.”