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Traverse City Central’s humble, yet ferocious Josh Burnham a perfect fit as the 2021 STATE CHAMPS! Anvil Award winner

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, December 8, 2021, 12:20 pm

When you’re a high-profile, Division I athlete living in a smaller town like Traverse City, it can be a bit hard to hide from admirers.

Josh Burnham wouldn’t have it any other way, though, and that accessibility and humility is exactly why — when coupled with his ferocity on the football field — he’s a perfect recipient of the fourth-annual STATE CHAMPS! Anvil Award.

“I mean, I’m super thankful for the community around me. Every day, it’s just awesome going out in public. The other day, I was at Cracker Barrel, just eating breakfast, and had some kid congratulate me on this season, all that sorta stuff. So I mean, just knowing that the community supports me. I mean, it’s awesome,” the Notre Dame-bound Traverse City Central senior linebacker and quarterback said, after a small ceremony at the high school Tuesday to present the award.

“I was like that kid when I was younger, too. I remember looking up to the older guys that were here before me at Thirlby (Field). Just thinking I like, ‘I can’t wait to get out there and play.’ I mean, it was like a Super Bowl for me when I was younger. I mean, it’s just just a high school game … but I’m super thankful for that.”

Burnham was surprised by the Anvil Award, which is handed out annually to the best lineman or linebacker in the state. 

“Honestly, I was just blown away. I mean, I didn’t — I wasn’t expecting this. I didn’t know it was happening today. I mean, I’m just really surprised. I’m I’m super thankful to be awarded this. So, I mean, it’s an honor,” he said. “It means a lot. I mean, I definitely want it to be a piece where these younger kids coming up through Traverse City see this and know that whatever they want to do, just put your mind to it, and you can get it done. Especially with the strength and conditioning staff that we have here, all the teachers and coaches, just the support all around you. Whatever you want to get done, just put your mind to and you’ll get it.”

If you want to check all the boxes for success as an individual player, Burnham does that.

The four-star Notre Dame commit was one of six finalists for the high school version of the Butkus Award (it went to Unity Reed linebacker Shawn Murphy of Manassas, Va. on Tuesday), and the winner of both the Gatorade Michigan High School Player of the Year and the MLive High School Football Player of the Year, handed out the same day.

“Our team makeup is what makes that person have success and maybe be in the spotlight. And so Josh is certainly that guy. It’s never been about him. It’s never been about his accomplishments — he always defers to his teammates. And that’s what makes him a great person and a high-character individual. …  I always tell people is he’s a guy you want to root for, because he’s a great person off the field as well as on the field,” TCC coach Eric Schugars said of Burnham, who won the fan vote portion of the award with 7,073 votes, more than 2,000 more than his closest competitor in the voting.

“That’s who Josh Burnham is, you know — he’s a likable guy. … He is who he is. So when he walks the hallways, he’s a humble guy, you wouldn’t think here’s this Division I athlete that’s walking the hall — he doesn’t boast of himself, he always takes the credit and passes it off to his teammates. And that’s just the mark of a great person and a high-character individual. …

“Josh always took the time to take a picture with someone or even shake hands with a community member or a little kid. And that just speaks to his character, because he understood it wasn’t about him. He represents something bigger than himself — this team, the Traverse City Central tradition and pride, he shouldered that responsibility, and he took us all the way to the state title game. I’m extremely proud for that, and just glad he was able to win this award.”

It helped that he was a bang-up linebacker, too, obviously.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Burnham was ranked as the No. 2 player in Michigan’s class of 2022 by 247Sports, and the No. 5 linebacker in the nation.

In 13 games, he racked up 52 solo tackles and 50 assisted tackles, 12 tackles for loss, a sack and two interceptions. He led a defense that allowed just 15.4 points per game (including three shutouts) in a 12-2 season that ended in the Division 2 state championship game, where Burnham posted eight tackles. 

“Josh is phenomenal football player for one, but just he plays with the physicality on the football field and defense is it for him. … He’s a gifted athlete, but it’s how he plays — he plays with a genuine joy in the physical side of football, he really enjoys like, he hits people with like, just a strength that it’s … uncommon, you know what I mean? And so it’s just fun to watch him and coach him and see him play on the defensive side of the ball,” Schugars said. “He plays on the field with a physicality like I haven’t seen before, and he just has a joy for the game. But off the field, he’s a gentleman, he’s the first guy to show up, you know, in the weight room, he’s the last guy to leave off the field, he takes care of the little things. … Playing at that level, you know, the devil’s in the details, and he takes care of all those little details to help him be successful. We talked about championship habits, and he has those habits to become a champion, you know, certainly on the field, but more more so off the field.”

Oh, and he doubled as the team’s quarterback, rushing for 1,516 yards and 29 touchdowns and passing for 955 yards and 14 more scores.

“They’re good at what they do. They’re good at what they do, and they have the athletes to do it. And you can’t just key on one thing, or they go right to another,” South Lyon coach Jeff Henson said after the Trojans racked up 447 yards rushing and 28 first downs in a 56-20 win over his Lions in the Division 2 semifinals, a game in which Burnham ran for 172 yards and three scores, blocked a kick and nearly took an interception back for a score. 

Heck, Burnham even punted 10 times on the season, with a 39.6-yard average, and three placed inside the 20-yard line. 

And, along with a senior class that wanted to leave a mark in their high school’s history, after falling short a year earlier, he helped guide the Trojans to the state title game after an absence of more than 30 years.

“I mean, Josh has been vital to our success and our football program, playing quarterback and playing middle linebacker, outside linebacker. He’s on the field 100 percent of the time, and it definitely can’t have a more valuable player than Josh. And he works for it. He deserves it. But I mean, if you if you talk to him, he’s so humble that you won’t even know that he’s a four-star going to Notre Dame. He just has that attitude, that mentality that he’s not better than anyone else. He’s super humble. He’s just a great guy overall. And it’s been it’s been super fun these last four years,” said fellow senior Carson Bourdo. “He’s super funny. You wouldn’t know that though — he’s pretty down to earth. … He’s a super funny guy. Super fun to hang around with.”

The other finalists for the 2021 Anvil Award were West Bloomfield linebacker/defensive end Michael Williams II, Sterling Heights Stevenson linebacker Jordan Kwiatkowski and Grand Rapids Catholic Central linebacker/safety Nolan Ziegler, Burnham’s future teammate at Notre Dame. 

Last year’s recipient, Clarkston’s Rocco Spindler, a freshman at Notre Dame. In part, it’s Burnham’s relationships with those two — along with his relationship with new coach Marcus Freeman — that has Burnham steadfast in his commitment to the Fighting Irish, despite the departure of former head coach Brian Kelly, even if enrolling early will cost him a chance to play one last season of basketball with his friends.

“Coach Freeman, there’s not a better guy. I mean, the first first time I met him, I knew that he was a great football coach, but he’s even better human,” Burnham said. “He’s super down to earth. I’m super thankful to be able to be able to go play for him.”

And after Notre Dame? 

“Oh, sky’s the limit. I mean, he has the best work ethic around, best mentality around, the most humble kid I know,” Bourdo said. “So as far as he wants to take it, the sky’s the limit for him and I’m excited to see where he ends up going, but it’s it’s gonna be fun next few years watching him progress as a football player and as a human and I’m excited for him.”

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Previous Anvil Award winners:

2020 — Rocco Spindler, OL, Clarkston (Notre Dame)

2019 — Cornell Wheeler, LB, West Bloomfield (Michigan)

2018 — Marcel Lewis, LB, Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (Michigan State/Central Michigan)