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The (wild) life and times of a former prep football star

Cowboy, escape artist, cardsharp, brief BYU football player found faith in Leavenworth of all places

SALT LAKE CITY — The life and times of Steve Burk sounds like a country song.

He’s been a cowboy, professional hunter, cardsharp, safecracker, escape artist, star athlete, trucker, contractor, convict and guest of the Leavenworth Penitentiary. He’s been on both ends of a gun barrel; he’s been blown up, shot up, hunted, shackled, imprisoned and freed.

Burk is a former BYU football player, but even the most ardent Cougar fan has never heard of him, and former teammates don’t remember him. His freshman season barely began and then he was gone. Left his wife, his scholarship, his team, his sport and some might say his mind. Didn’t stop until he reached a Montana cow camp, where he began a life of seasonal work, legal and illegal, which took him through middle age and didn’t end until he found God and a man named John Westwood — his Abbe Faria — behind prison walls.

Ultimately, this is a tale of one man’s long circuitous journey to change himself and his life. As former classmate and teammate Gary Berg put it, “It’s a larger-than–life story, but it really happened."

From under the awning of a cowboy hat, Burk’s roughly handsome face is right out of Dorothea Lange’s camera, etched and lined and worn. He’s a hard-living old cowboy with a slow, Western drawl, albeit one with an English professor’s vocabulary. He is 68 years old; his body’s age is somewhere considerably north of that. He walks with a cane because of the hip replacement he required years after he was blown out of his seat by an improvised explosive device in the Middle East.

It doesn’t help that he also once took a bullet in the back running from the law.

Past and present merged for Burk earlier this year. For the first time in 30 years, he was reunited with his old friend and mentor, Westwood, a retired Army colonel and BYU graduate who grew up in Utah. Westwood flew to Salt Lake City from his home in New Hampshire for the reunion, and there they were, embracing warmly in the lobby of the Deseret News, of all places.

“I’ve tried to contact him, but he’s lived in 95 places,” says Westwood, not exaggerating by much. “I’ve just been feeling like I wanted to find him again.”

Burk’s younger brother, Greg, who lives in Salt Lake City and is working on a book and video about his brother’s life, tracked down Westwood and arranged the reunion.

The last time Westwood and Burk saw each other, Burk was in Leavenworth. The reason he was in Leavenworth is that he sneaked out of an Idaho jail one night and shot a man in the rear end with a shotgun. Somebody ratted him out for the assault, which surprised the authorities because they thought he was in jail, which is where they found him, reading a book, cool as a cat in the shade. By the time they figured out what had gone down, he had escaped again.

Steve Burk, right, and John Westwood, left, catch up after 30 years apart on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 24, 2017. While Burk was in prison, he met Westwood, an Army officer who was stationed nearby and came to the prison as a represe
Steve Burk, right, and John Westwood, left, catch up after 30 years apart on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 24, 2017. While Burk was in prison, he met Westwood, an Army officer who was stationed nearby and came to the prison as a representative of the LDS Church.
Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

When Burk was caught, it was decided the only suitable jail for a man with a long record of jailbreaks was Leavenworth. That’s where he met Westwood, who was stationed in Kansas at the time and was doing volunteer work at the prison. They struck up a friendship and discovered their mutual faith, and Burk converted — or reconverted — to the church of his youth. He swore off alcohol, crime and gambling — even cigarettes off and on — and has lived a straight life for nearly three decades.

“I had been thinking about Steve a lot,” says Westwood. “I wondered what had become of him."

If Elmore Leonard and Louis L’Amour had collaborated, they might have created Burk. He was raised on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes in Idaho. His dad, a part-time farmer and rancher, worked for the railroads for 35 years. His seven kids hunted and fished and roved the countryside. Steve and Greg Burk say their father, Fred, was temperamental and difficult to live with — “Got mad clear down to his socks,” Steve says. Their mother, Cleo, was the peacemaker.

Burk starred on offense and defense for Highland High’s football team in nearby Pocatello. He set career records, which have been broken since then, but that’s at least partly because teams play more games now than they did in Burk’s time. In 1965, Burk ran for 11 touchdowns in nine games. A year later he rushed for 19 touchdowns and 1,324 yards, including 211 in one game. He finished with career totals of 2,171 yards and 194 points, averaging seven yards per carry.

One story in the Idaho State Journal reported: "STEVE BURK PACES HIGHLAND PAST POCATELLO. Fullback Steve Burk, eating up yardage as if he owned all real estate in sight, led the Highland Rams to a 24-7 victory over a game but outmanned Pocatello High team in their annual Veterans Day battle. Burk, a 215-pound senior, bulldozed his way for 190 yards and … two touchdowns. … Burk also topped off a great game by taking a pitchout and (throwing) a 31-yard touchdown pass.”

“He was an outstanding player on both sides of the ball,” says Jim Koetter, Burk’s old head coach and the father of NFL coach Dirk Koetter. “He was very aggressive and had great speed and agility. He loved to play, was very coachable and a hard worker. He was certainly in the top five or six players I ever coached in my 37 years of coaching. He was as good as any you see now.”

Burk also starred for the track team. BURK SHATTERS DISCUS MARK WITH 157’ 6” read a headline in the Journal, referring to a district meet record.

Burk earned such respect that he was one of 14 athletes nominated for Idaho Athlete of the Year, which included collegiate athletes (Idaho State basketball player Dave Wagnon won the award).

“He was just unbelievably good — big, strong and fast,” says Berg. “Ahead of his time. He was really something. He’d run over two, three, four guys and keep going.”

Burk had scholarship offers from Utah, Wyoming, Notre Dame and Stanford. His parents convinced him to go to BYU. He went.

“I hated it,” he says.

He was a self-described “country bumpkin” who felt lost even in the small college town of Provo. After working all summer in a Salt Lake flour mill, he reported to BYU for fall practice. He lasted only a couple of months.

“I didn’t get along with all the California jocks,” he says. “I was in a fight almost every week with those guys.”

He told assistant coach Earl Lindley he was leaving. Lindley and head coach Tommy Hudspeth came to Burk’s apartment to talk him into staying, but after the first freshman game, he packed his ’57 Chevy and took off for the backcountry. It was an ugly departure. Just before leaving home he had married his high school girlfriend — “Worst mistake I ever made,” says Burk, a statement that, given his many other missteps, might qualify as exaggeration. She was pregnant; he was restless and irresponsible.

“She was the sweetest lady,” he says, “but I just didn’t want to go to BYU and I didn’t want to be married. I just wanted to spread my wings. I was trapped. I wanted to see the wild country. My heroes were my cowboy uncles. I felt comfortable in that company, a kind of rough company but good-hearted.”

In those days, freshmen weren’t allowed to play in varsity competition, and Burk didn’t make much of an impression. Ron Wakly, a sophomore on that BYU team and a southern Idaho native, says, “I remember him, but not from BYU. I knew who he was in high school; he was a heckuva player. I have no idea what happened to him after that.”

Burk was in a Pocatello bar one afternoon when he met his future, although he didn’t know it at the time.

He had been in the backcountry for months and now he was relaxing. As he sat in the bar, he noticed a man sitting alone in a booth. He was well-dressed and one leg was in a cast. Two men showed up and sat across from the man and began harassing and insulting him. This went on for a few minutes and then Burk walked across the room and sat down across from the bullies. He was a devotee of the weight room and looked like an NFL linebacker. Everything about him said "don’t mess with me."

The men looked at each other and then excused themselves. The well-dressed man, whose name was Dale, thanked him.

A few months later, after another return from the backcountry, he bumped into Dale again. They began to talk. He learned that Dale was a professional gambler and card cheat. Dale wanted to employ Burk. They agreed to a partnership and concocted a number of schemes that utilized hand signals at the poker table. After their first night out, Dale handed Burk a stack of cash. “I never made a dime, and now I have $2,000 in my hand,” he says.

Thus he started down the long road that would lead to Leavenworth.

After fleeing BYU, Burk had driven to Cut Bank, Montana, and fed cows for a few weeks and fell into the life of an itinerant cowboy. He roped, herded and doctored cattle for big ranches in Nevada, Montana, Idaho and Oregon, and took work with an outfitting business in the Idaho primitive area. When the ranching season was on, he kept busy; it was in the off-season that he found trouble, beginning with the chance meeting with Dale. For years they hustled card games throughout the West.

The money was good — Burk claims he made $50,000 in 2 ½ hours one night — but his conscience gnawed at him.

“Eventually I backed out of it,” he says. “It was my upbringing coming out.”

Burk engaged in other criminal enterprises, one of which was serving as a lookout for thieves at a rate of $500 a night, and for a time he fell in with robbers whose specialty was cracking safes, using drills and a scope.

At times, he was insanely impetuous, especially when he was drinking. On a drunken whim one day he robbed a Pocatello market at gunpoint even after the checker, a former classmate, recognized him and begged him to walk away, promising not to say anything.

“The only thing that saved me was those cow camps and hunting camps in the fall,” he recalls. “I had to get away from that culture. When you’re on horseback out there in the open and the air’s clean and you’re active and you’re eating good, it heals you.”

He tried to leave crime, but whenever he ran out of funds he turned to the easy money. He left it for good when a couple of thugs showed up at his house and departed only after Burk brandished a pistol.

He tried to make a living by hunting coyotes and selling their pelts, but then he found trouble again. He was sentenced to serve weekends in jail — he can’t remember why — and one night, in a pre-emptive strike, he went after a man who had noised it around town that he was going to get Burk for dating his ex-wife.

“He’d come after me twice with a gun,” says Burk. “I just wanted to scare him.”

He did more than that. One weekend, he escaped jail just long enough to put No. 7 birdshot in the man’s backside and returned to jail before anyone missed him. The police figured out what had happened and decided to charge him with attempted murder. When this news reached Burk, he fled to Las Vegas, which is where the FBI found him several months later.

He was put in jail in Salmon, Idaho, but escaped twice in three days. After the first escape he was found with a saddle horse and a packhorse, preparing to flee to the mountains at night under a full moon. After some negotiation, he turned himself in. Two days later he escaped jail again, this time through an air vent in the wall. He was found several months later and was shot while trying to flee.

A photo appeared in the Idaho State Journal on Feb. 14, 1982, above the caption: “Steve Burk, 33, is placed on a stretcher for a helicopter flight to an Idaho Falls hospital after he was shot while fleeing from officers in Salmon Friday morning. Burk was shot … by Lemhi County Sheriff William Baker, who was attempting to make an arrest … at a drive-in restaurant. Burk broke away from the officers after they found him hiding in a restroom following a telephoned tip. Burk … is charged with attempted murder and jail escape. He has escaped the Lemhi County Jail three times, twice in January of this year.”

Burk was hospitalized for months. “I picked bone chips out of that wound for six months,” he recalls. “I thought I was going to die. I thought, 'I’m gonna find out if it’s all true.'”

When Burk recovered from his wound, he was taken to the state penitentiary in Boise to await trial for attempted murder. The trial resulted in a hung jury, and Burk agreed to a reduced charge of aggravated battery, figuring he’d get five years. He got 14.

A year later, he was brought to Caldwell to testify as a witness in a trial. He was assigned to work in the courthouse kitchen and three days later he escaped again while taking out the trash. He had filled his pockets with matches and wore two pairs of socks, and as soon as he reached the trash can he began running. The guards, who were watching on a security camera, immediately gave chase and fired their weapons, but the former football star raced away, dodging fences, hedges and dogs in a residential area before he reached the brush on the outskirts of town.

The Associated Press reported: “A Salmon (Idaho) man, who escaped from Lemhi County Jail twice in 1982, is on the run again. Steven Burk, who went to the Idaho State Penitentiary Feb. 25, 1982, was still at large Sunday after he escaped from protective custody in Caldwell at 7:30 a.m. Saturday. 'He was working as a trustee and just made it out of the kitchen door when the shifts were changing,' said Don McCune, director of the detention center. 'We were very familiar with his past. But we felt he had an excellent attitude and was working hard for parole.'”

He was on the lam for weeks, and then he showed up at his family’s ranch to pick up horses to hide in the mountains, but someone invited the police to the reunion and he was captured. The Idaho State Journal reported, “Steven Burk, who escaped from the Canyon County Jail more than two months ago, was recaptured at his mother’s home here Thursday night. … Sheriff Shirley Gameson said Burk was apprehended after county, Pocatello, Chubbuck and Fort Hall authorities surrounded his mother’s residence. … The sheriff said Burk was armed but surrendered voluntarily.”

Burk’s reputation for escapes spread in Pocatello. For a joke, someone printed posters and T-shirts that read: ELECT STEVE BURK CHIEF OF POLICE; HE KNOWS THE INS AND OUTS OF ALL THE JAILS. Burk’s family found little humor in his frenetic lifestyle.

Steve Burk made so many escapes from jail that someone printed T-shirts and posters like this one.
Steve Burk made so many escapes from jail that someone printed T-shirts and posters like this one.
Doug Robinson

“That’s one of the reasons I had to get out of Pocatello,” says Greg Burk. “It was always, ‘Hey, aren’t you the brother of …’ or, ‘Are you a Burk?’ That was the talk of the town. All the high school kids were wearing those dang T-shirts. There is family guilt and shame and all that. It was like watching a show, but it was reality. I was trying to get my life started.”

Cleo Burk, who was Primary president of the local LDS ward, saw three of her five sons serve jail and/or prison time. Greg Burk was one of the straight arrows. “I never saw the inside of the jail, just the outside on visiting days,” he says.

After Steve Burk surrendered at the family ranch, there were no more escapes. He was put in “the hole” in the Idaho penitentiary for 18 months — solitary confinement in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell — and then flown to Leavenworth. With the additional charges for interstate flight and escape, his sentence was increased to 24 years. Beginning in 1982, he spent a total of 7 ½ years in prison, five in Leavenworth.

A psychologist would tell him, through court-ordered counseling, that he had been rebelling against the overpowering personalities of an older brother and father, but Burk says alcohol was a big factor. “I started drinking and I had never done that,” he says. “I was a dedicated athlete. When I was drinking I was a new person and felt good, and that’s when I did the crazy stuff.”

Says Berg, “When he was a teen you couldn’t find a better guy. There was so much promise and then all of a sudden. …”

Burk had a choice to make in Leavenworth, and it was standing in front of him, inches from his nose. The leader of an Aryan gang was leaning into his face. He was heavily tattooed, with a braided pony tale that reached to his waist. He had singled out Burk in the yard over some perceived slight. Burk, thickly muscled and athletic, did not fear the man, but in an instant he perceived the long-term consequences of a fight.

When he first arrived in Leavenworth, Burk spent several weeks casing the place, searching for possible escape, but he could see no way out. This was the big leagues of the prison system. Burk was forced to make a decision. He chose to pay his dues, serve his time and change his life.

“I just wanted to go home to the prairies and mountains,” he recalls. The quickest way to do that was to avoid trouble that might add years to his sentence. And now here was this Aryan threatening violence. If he struck the man, it would incite a vicious cycle of revenge from fellow gang members and prolong his sentence.

Burk threw up his hands and walked away.

During his stay at Leavenworth, Burk witnessed the gruesome violence of prison life.

“I never saw a fistfight,” he says, “just death.” He saw men murdered with pipes and knives and, in one case, a 25-pound weight to the head. These were hardened, desperate men who had no hope of getting out.

“You had two choices: separate yourself from that prison culture or get absorbed by it,” he says.

He became an island.

“I walked down the run with my eyes straight ahead,” he says. “Word got around quick — he’s not worth trouble, he minds his business, does his own time.”

Inmates were allowed an hour in the yard; Burk used every minute of it simply to escape his cell and breathe a measure of freedom. Even if it were pouring rain and cold, he’d pull a garbage sack over his shoulders and walk the yard while the guards cursed him for forcing them out into the elements, too.

“For the first time in my life I had no options,” Burk says. “That’s when I found God.”

With no escape possible and all that empty time, Burk settled on his island and began an intense reading program, poring over biographies, histories and religious works. To this day he can talk at length about the Hundred Years’ War and the technique and efficacy of long bowmen in ancient war. In a rambling conversation, he quotes Richard Lloyd Dewey, Leon Uris, G. Gordon Liddy and Spencer W. Kimball.

“I read for five years,” he says. “Or I was working out.”

Much of his reading was intense religious study. He began by reading encyclopedias to learn the origins of the Bible and various religions. He read the Bible, Quran and Book of Mormon several times, cover to cover. He went to a corner of the yard or anywhere private to pray. Says Burk, “I’d say, ‘I’m ready; if you’re there, I’d like to know if you are real, if religion is real, if the Savior is real. If it is, I want in on it.’”

As he studied, he says he realized there was much confusion and contradiction in Christian doctrine, but he felt drawn to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I came back to my roots,” he says. “Believe me, the last thing I wanted was to be a Mormon again.”

Steve Burk smells the blossoms on a flowering tree on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 24, 2017.
Steve Burk smells the blossoms on a flowering tree on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 24, 2017.
Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

He attended Bible study classes and picked the brains of prison chaplains, but it turned contentious. He disputed their authority to absolve men of sin or to “save” their souls. When three different preachers contradicted each other on one major point of theology, he stopped meeting with the men.

Enter Westwood. In many ways, he was Burk’s opposite. He was a poster boy for discipline, a man who put in 35 years with the Army and retired as a colonel. A graduate of East High School, he served an LDS Church mission and then came home and earned a journalism degree at BYU and a master’s degree in human resources and management at Webster University. He was awarded a Harvard fellowship to study group dynamics before becoming director for human resources for the Army. Later he became a speechwriter for the Office of Chief of Staff at the Pentagon.

Early in his military career he began doing volunteer work at prisons because, as he explains it, “everybody’s life matters.” He would simply talk and listen to inmates who needed hope and a friend. “Half the time you go home in tears,” says Westwood.

When the Army sent him to Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1987 to study at the Command and General Staff College, he volunteered to work at the prison during his free time, mostly in maximum security. That’s where he met Burk. Early on in their conversations, they realized they had one thing in common: Both had been raised in the LDS Church. A friendship developed over the course of a year. Westwood looked out for Burk, even buying him a new pair of shoes.

“My mission was to make sure he knew his life mattered,” Westwood says. “We had deep conversations and he was very receptive to things I would say. In all honesty, I gained as much as he ever did. It’s not as if he were brain dead. He knew more than I did. He didn’t just sit in prison satisfied with three hots and a cot. He really did read and study. And he didn’t forget what he read, nor did he have a closed mind when he read it. Steve was willing to listen and reason.”

Shortly after his release in September 1989 — more than a year after Westwood had been transferred elsewhere — Burk was baptized into the LDS Church. He’ll never be a cover boy for the church's Ensign magazine, but he has never returned to crime or alcohol, although he has struggled with his cigarette habit and divorced two more wives.

“I go to church on Sunday,” he says. “I can’t quit smoking, but I have a testimony of the church. I get some funny looks. I don’t care. I go to church for me. I’m a good clean boy. I say my prayers. I just have this smoking habit. I changed my life totally. I became totally honest.”

After learning about Burk’s ongoing battle with cigarettes, Westwood told him, “With all the hard stuff you’ve done in your life, don’t tell me you can’t quit smoking.” Burk replied, “I know.” Burk and Westwood have tried to stay in touch since their recent reunion.

After Westwood left Leavenworth for a new Army assignment, he visited Cleo at her Idaho home. He thought he would stay 15 minutes; he stayed an hour. “I had such a good relationship with Steve that I thought she would appreciate that,” says Westwood. “She was delightful and very appreciative. And she was brokenhearted. He had a beautiful wife and threw it all away.”

After his release Burk worked in cabinet shops in Idaho and Montana and drove logging trucks in Alaska. He returned to cowboying for a while, but busted his shoulder in a horse wreck. He drove heavy equipment for a construction firm in Salt Lake City, and then found himself in the Middle East working as a private contractor for seven years, building facilities for Iraqi and Afghani armies and police. Burk, who had 500 men working for him, traveled everywhere with a 9 mm pistol or an AK-47, as well as an armed escort.

He was traveling to Baghdad once when his three-car convoy was ambushed and Burk found himself in a gunfight. Then in 2010 his truck was blown up by an improvised explosive device that threw him into the ceiling of the vehicle. It took months to recover from injuries to his hip. He returned to the U.S. for a hip replacement and planned to return to the Middle East until a physical revealed he had early stage prostate cancer. While undergoing treatment for the cancer, he contracted E. coli poisoning, which ate into two of his vertebrae. He was sick for two years.

He was forced to retire at the age of 62, but he was too restless for that and took seasonal work in Yellowstone and the Island Park area. He drove heavy equipment in the landfill and worked in park maintenance. This summer he drove (and narrated) bus tours in the park.

“I acknowledge the protecting hand of my Father in heaven,” he says. “Why he protected me, I don’t know. There were many times I should’ve been in my grave. That’s a fact. He has given me the chance to learn and to help my family. It’s been a good thing. … I’m just glad to be around, and living my life. … My grandchildren love me. Can’t beat that.”

He gets calls from his children and they discuss religion and doctrine, something for which he is well-prepared. He thinks about all this as he looks ahead.

“There are eternal principles and they don’t change or vary,” he says. “No one is exempt from those, and they’re simple and few, but no one is exempt. It’s the precept of accountability. We’re all going to be accountable for what we say or do or think.”

He pauses and then says something that could refer both to his journey through this life and the next.

“The only thing that saves is repentance and the miracle of the Atonement and resurrection,” he says. “That’s where mercy pays justice. You can’t escape justice.”