On opening night of the 2013 season, Peyton Manning tied an NFL record by throwing seven touchdown passes against the Baltimore Ravens. On the TV broadcast they noted five other quarterbacks shared the record. Three are Hall of Famers (Sid Luckman, George Blanda and Y.A. Tittle) and one was an MVP (Joe Kapp).
Then there was Adrian Burk.
Most Eagles fans probably said, “Who?”
Burk played for the Eagles from 1951 through ’56 and those weren’t exactly glory years for football in Philadelphia. In his first season with the Eagles, Burk threw 14 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions. But for one day in 1954, he was good enough to make history.
With the Eagles preparing to play Manning and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, it seemed like a good time to tell the story of Adrian Burk, the least likely member of the seven touchdown club. An All- America quarterback and punter at Baylor, Burk was drafted by Baltimore in 1950 and traded to the Eagles the following year.
For most of his time in Philadelphia, he shared the quarterback duties with Bobby Thomason. Burk was given the start on October 17, 1954 when the Eagles, who were off to a 3-0 start, played the Washington Redskins in Griffith Stadium.
“No one could have foreseen what would happen that day, least of all me,” Burk said in 1987 when I tracked him down (more on that later). “Our game plan was to run the ball. We spent the whole week practicing plays for (halfbacks) Jerry Williams and Jim Parmer.”
As the game unfolded, the Eagles had a lot of red zone opportunities and with the Redskins stacking the line, Burk found it easier to fake a handoff and throw a pass. Ends Pete Pihos and Bobby Walston each had three touchdown catches and halfback Toy Ledbetter had the other.
“It seemed like every time I threw a pass, it was six points,” Burk said. “It was just one of those days.”
Burk finished with just 19 completions for 229 yards. Those are almost paltry numbers when compared to the totals amassed by Tittle (505 yards), Manning (462), Kapp (449), Luckman (433) and Blanda (418) in their seven touchdown games.
None of Burk’s touchdown passes was longer than 26 yards. Four of them covered 9 yards or fewer. Because so many of the touchdown passes were short ones, it did not occur to Burk or his teammates that he was doing anything extraordinary.
Coach Jim Trimble lifted Burk after his sixth touchdown pass. Ed Hogan, the team’s publicity director, checked the record book and saw that Burk needed one more touchdown pass to tie Luckman, the great Chicago quarterback. Hogan sent word to the bench and Trimble sent Burk back into the game to go for the record.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” said Pihos, who led the NFL in receptions that season. “I couldn’t figure out why they were lifting Bobby (Thomason). We were in the middle of a drive. We didn’t know anything about the record and Adrian didn’t say anything when he came in the huddle. I’m glad I didn’t know or I might have dropped the damn ball (for the seventh touchdown).”
The Eagles won the game 49-21. There were only 22,051 people in attendance and there was no NFL Network and no fantasy leagues tracking every pass so Burk’s career day went largely unnoticed. He couldn’t recall talking to a single reporter.
“We took the bus back to Philadelphia and there was no great elation,” Trimble said. “Part of that was Adrian himself. He was such a modest person. As I recall, he gave all the credit to his receivers.”
The Eagles lost four of the next five games and finished 7-4-1. The only other highlight of the season was the rematch with Washington when Burk threw five more scoring passes in a 41-33 win. That gave him 12 touchdown passes in two games against the Redskins. Burk led the league with 23 touchdown passes that year.
He hung up the pads after the 1956 season to attend law school. He became a successful trial lawyer in Houston and when the American Football League was formed in 1960, he took a front office job with the Oilers. After a few years, hereturned to his law practice, but kept his hand in the game by working as an official. He refereed games on the college level and then went to the NFL.
As an official, Burk was again part of history. He was the back judge who made the call on perhaps the most famous play in league history, The Immaculate Reception. He ruled that Franco Harris caught the deflected pass that allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to defeat Oakland, 13-7 in the 1972 AFC playoffs.
About tracking him down …
I was working at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1987, the year the NFL players went on strike. I was working on a story about the potential damage that could be done to the record book if some of the game’s great accomplishments were wiped out in the so-called “replacement” games. I wanted to find Burk since he shared a significant record.
I tried the Eagles and the NFL Alumni, but no one had a current number for him. Finally, someone at Baylor suggested contacting the Southern Baptist Church. After a long series of phone calls, I was given a number in Northborough, Mass. I called and was greeted by a pleasant voice saying, “This is the Luther Rice Home.” It was Adrian Burk answering the phone.
Burk and his wife were serving as volunteer missionaries. Luther Rice founded the Baptist foreign mission movement and his birthplace was used as a Baptist retreat. The Burks maintained the property, repairing shingles, raking leaves and giving tours. Adrian was the pastor at a nearby church where he conducted Sunday services. They were true volunteers. There was no pay for any of it.
“This was a decision we reached together,” Burk said, referring to himself and his wife. “We spent half of our lives concerned with ourselves. We decided to spend the rest serving other people and the Lord. It’s the best decision we ever made. We don’t live lavishly, but we’ve never lived better.”
Burk passed away on July 28, 2003, but his name lives on in the NFL record book.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the season for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History pieces here.