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Burns: 'It's tough sometimes'

Each year Steelers' players vote on an award that is normally given to one of their teammates who has come back from a season-ending injury the year before, to work their way back onto the field, back into the lineup at a solid contributor. 

Artie Burns is honored at the Holy Family Courage House Luncheon.

When they voted this year, the winner wasn't someone who was injured, was someone who had to fight back from an injury.

It is someone who battled something much more difficult.

Artie Burns was voted by his teammates the 2017 recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, an award he received at the 25th Annual Art Rooney Courage House Luncheon at Heinz Field, which benefits Holy Family Institute.

Burns didn't win the award because of what many in the past won it for. He won the award because he fought through one of life's biggest challenges, and in the process put his own needs behind those he loves he most.

Ask any of his teammates, any of his coaches, and they will immediately tell you how much Burns has grown on the field since his rookie season last year.

The Steelers' No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, his first year was a learning experience. But this year, he has matured on the field, and it's paying dividends for the entire defense.

But when it comes to maturity off the field, Burns didn't have time to make an adjustment. He didn't have a year to get accustomed to what life delivered.

Burns lost his mother, Dana Smith, in October, 2015 when she suffered a heart attack at just 44 years old.

She had gone to work on a Monday morning, and was found collapsed in the parking lot next to her car. Burns and other family members got a phone call, but they never expected what was ahead of them. They thought it was something minor, just an injury. They never could have imagined that she would be on life support by the time they got to the hospital, and she didn't make it through the night.

It was a heartbreaking shock for him. She was the one who raised him and his two younger brothers, Thomas and Jordan, by herself since their father was incarcerated since 2006.

She was the backbone of the family. She was the one there to guide them, keep them on the right path, and have them dream big.

And now, she was gone.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Burns did what he had to. It was football season, and he had a responsibility so he played the University of Miami's next game, to honor his mother, who was always there cheering him on.

"It was definitely challenging," said Burns. "It was hard. I had to stick to the grind, stay focused, and never drift off because if you drift a little bit you fall away from the main mission. I tried to stay focused. There are always distractions.

"My mom passed right in the middle of my senior season at Miami, when the season started to get hot. I knew my teammates needed me. That made me start to think about more than myself. I knew my brothers needed me, I knew everybody else needed me. I had to deal with my feelings, but be there for everybody else. That helped me get through it, having to be there for others, others being there for me."

And be there for others he was. He took responsibility for his siblings. Sure, he couldn't do it all while still at Miami, but once he was drafted by the Steelers he moved his brothers to Pittsburgh, and along with his girlfriend Gabriella, he is raising his brothers as well as his two young sons, A.J. and Saint Cairo, in Pittsburgh.

"I'm the next provider in my household, after my mom and my dad," said Burns. "That's my responsibility. At the end of the day I know I am helping out everybody I love so it's no biggie. As long as I am making their life better, making our life better, I am all for it."

Coach Mike Tomlin, who presented the award to Burns, is amazed by the way he has handled the situation and the responsibility that comes with it.

"I am continually amazed at how he handles it all," said Tomlin. "I have two teenage sons but I am 45 years old. To watch him balance the responsibility of being a guardian for his brothers, and support them the way he does at their high school events and football games and things, is impressive. The way he is able to get those parental-like things done while doing the things he has to get done, is simply amazing."  

If there is anyone who understands the challenges, it's fellow cornerback William Gay. He lost his mother to domestic violence when he was young, and his older brother quickly became someone who looked out for him.

"Just taking in your brothers, you have to become a man fast," said Gay. "It was like the way my older brother was when my mom passed away. He was 15-years old and he had me, who was eight, and a four-year old brother. We both looked up to him. That is what I see in Artie, someone like my older brother who had to take on responsibility that he might not have been ready for, but he did it. Artie is doing an amazing job and is also focused in on football. You can't beat that."

There are some tough decisions he has to make, some things most 22-year olds don't have to worry about. And one of them, is dealing with two teenagers in the house.

"It's tough sometimes," said Burns. "You have to make the right choices for them. You don't want to make mistakes. Every mistake I made in life I try to learn from it, I want to get better. I lean on people I trust for advice in certain situations."

He recently missed an event he wanted to attend because it conflicted with his brother's senior night at Pine-Richland High School. Family had to come first, and he wanted to be there for Thomas, showing quite simply that he is making the right choices.

"That senior night, everybody was going to have their parents there," said Burns. "He didn't have his parents there. He knows I am always there for him, from the time we were little. For me to be there for those moments is important. You only experience things like that once, and I wanted to be there for him." 

Burns also created Dana's Angels, a program through The Caring Place to help grieving kids by lifting their spirits through a dinner at the holidays.

"I decided to do something like this because just like me they are missing their loved one," said Burns. "Her name is on the front of it. It's all about my mom and the emotions. This is about the kids too.   

"My mom, it's not always easy getting over loved ones. Over time you cope with it and remember all of the good memories you had and keep life moving."

One of the toughest things Burns deals with is not having his mother there to see him raise his two sons. She never met the youngest, Saint, and that hurts.

"My mom, I wish she was here to see everything, be a part of everything," said Burns, who still communicates with his father who is incarcerated in South Carolina. "When I had my second son, I wish she would have been there. She met A.J. and saw him, but she never got to see my second son. I really missed on that opportunity. I wish she was there to see that, and a lot more."

In addition to Burns winning the Ed Block Courage Award, Ray Morris was the recipient of the Arthur J. Rooney Sr. Courage House Award.

During the event, late Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney was also remembered, and a scholarship in his name was announced. The Daniel Mr. Rooney Ambassador Scholarship will be awarded annually to an incoming Holy Family Academy ninth grader who demonstrated core values through their elementary school years.

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