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Burdette tackles a different sport

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You're a likely starting H-back or tight end on a Ute football team that finished undefeated the previous year. You're in your hometown, where friends and family can see you play. In fact, you're at the high point of your career.

So what do you do?

You quit and sally forth to England to play rugby, naturally.

What, football isn't rough enough?

Blake Burdette announced this week he won't return for his senior season with the Utes, instead taking an offer to play pro rugby on the other side of the pond. So long, Wednesday night pizza and hanging out at the student union. Hello, kidney pie and toffee pudding.

By the way, does this mean he'll have to listen to the BBC and say things like shed-yool and la-boor-a-tree instead of schedule and laboratory?

The news Burdette is leaving the Utes wasn't shocking, but it wasn't the best thing coach Kyle Whittingham has heard, either. That makes two likely starters gone before the first practice, which began this weekend. The other is defensive end Marquess Ledbetter, who showed up with a torn tendon in his thigh last month. After losing stars such as Morgan Scalley, Alex Smith, Marty Johnson and Steve Savoy to graduation or the NFL, it seems unlikely the Utes will reach last year's heights.

The loss of Burdette couldn't help.

Meanwhile, Burdette is passing up what probably would have been his best football year.

It's enough to wonder if he's lost his mind.

"In my own family they've said that," says Burdette. "It's a tough choice. I'm going into the unknown. I just feel this is an opportunity and I should take it."

Yeah, who could pass up the chance to get tackled without a helmet?

Burdette's rugby career began in high school. He played other traditional American sports at Olympus High, including football and baseball, but of the latter he says, "I decided it was sort of slow-moving, so I said I'd go try this rugby thing. It felt right for me."

After several years playing for the nationally acclaimed Highland High club team, three years of college football, four years of college rugby at Utah, plus an LDS mission to Minnesota, he feels he's found his place. Everyone gets to carry the ball — which isn't something you can say about football. There's still plenty of tackling. And there's always the thrill of wondering if you'll lose a tooth.

"I don't think I really sought out rugby," he says, "but rugby found me."

He had been considering rugby as a career for a couple of years. But this summer, after a nice session of spring football with the Utes, he played with the U.S. national rugby team. He was offered the job in England — he hasn't been assigned to a specific team yet — in the highest league.

"My coaches said, 'Hey, Blake, how far do you want to take your rugby?' "

Oh, about 5,000 miles.

"I kind of felt I was to the point where I had to choose, and I've realized I'm not going to play on Sundays in football. So this was an opportunity for me to go and compete professionally in something else," says Burdette. "I think there's about 4,000 college football athletes and every year there's about 350 job openings in the NFL. That's a tough road."

Instead, he's taking on a sport that's a little like football and a lot like festival seating at a Who concert.

In the process, Burdette says, he'll have to do some educating over here in the colonies. Americans think playing rugby is "a social thing," after which the players go out for beer. On the level he's playing, "it's a lot more than that."

He sees rugby in America being similar to what soccer was 20 years ago. This country has the money and the talent pool; now it just needs the commitment.

Says Burdette: "It's not the second-most popular sport in the world for nothing."


E-mail: rock@desnews.com