This isn’t exactly the way Ken Burkhardt Jr. planned it. Then again, he really didn’t have a plan after he tore his ACL as a high school senior and things fell through on a possible landing spot at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. This could have been the story of Ken Burkhardt Jr., outside linebacker and member of a nationally-ranked Concordia football team.
Still in his hometown Milford following a successful high school run, Burkhardt Jr. took classes at Southeast Community College while he plotted his next move. “I was kind of desperate at that time,” admitted Burkhardt Jr.
But the third of five siblings clearly had the ability to compete collegiately in something. Then head football coach Vance Winter came with an offer that sounded good enough for Burkhardt Jr. to sign on the dotted line.
“My first semester here I did (spring) football and wrestling and my GPA suffered because of that,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “I sat down with Coach (Dana) Vote and had a heart-to-heart. He was like, ‘You can be average at both of these sports or pick one and be really good at one.’ Fortunately, I was able to excel in wrestling. I’m blessed that I had that conversation with him.”
If you’ve been following his career, you know Burkhardt Jr.’s decision was the right one. That point was made loud and clear last week as Burkhardt Jr., wrestling in Crete, the town where he was born, celebrated career win No. 100. That victory, like all of them that weekend, came in dominant fashion. Many family members and friends were on hand as Burkhardt Jr. reached a lofty win total that no other Bulldog grappler has ever touched.
This was just the latest accomplishment for the NAIA’s second-ranked 197-pounder, who seeks to become the first competitor in program history to earn three All-America plaques. The 100th win was something he was ready to knock out and move on from, but it’s likely a moment he won’t forget. Said Burkhardt Jr., “I could hear my family the whole time I was wrestling. It was pretty cool.”
Burkhardt Jr. will enter next week’s Oklahoma City Duals with a career record of 102-53. The GPAC wrestler of the week has been on a tear. He’s pinned six-straight opponents and is fresh off a 197-pound title at the Doane University Open.
“He looked like a man all day today,” said first-year head coach Andrew Nicola following the Doane Open. “He’s been sticking to the game plan all season, which is why he’s having so much success. He just does not come out of position and he’s relentless with his hands. He’s got nasty snaps. He’s hard to score on. We just need to keep him healthy and he’s going to be pretty hard to beat.”
Though Seward and Milford High School are separated by only 13 miles, Concordia was hardly a consideration for much of Burkhardt Jr.’s prep career. But fellow Milford Eagle and good friend Kyle Rakow helped set a new trend of Eagles turned Bulldogs. Rakow, who became an all-conference defensive end on the football team, helped sway Burkhardt Jr., who initially thought he was headed to Concordia to compete solely on the gridiron.
But Vote noticed that Burkhardt Jr. had indicated an interest in wrestling on his application. That spurred a conversation that then inspired Burkhardt Jr. to find his way to the wrestling room. So began a career that has seen the well-put together Nebraskan improve each season. He went 21-18 and qualified for nationals as a freshman. That wasn’t bad, but he’s so much better now.
“The main thing is the mentality,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “You have to go out there with confidence that you’re No. 1 and that you’re going to beat your guy. You have to be relentless with your attacks. Freshman year I wasn’t confident at all. Basically I was beating myself before I was even wrestling. I was thinking about way too much instead of just going out and wrestling. I had some talks with Coach Vote and Coach (Ryan) Pankoke that helped me out. Then this year, Coach Nicola has helped me out.”
There were times when Vote was tough on Burkhardt Jr. There were also the good-natured ribbings. Now director of operations for Iowa State University wrestling, Vote developed a strong bond with Burkhardt Jr. Vote believed in him.
“He’s a guy that flies under the radar,” Vote said of Burkhardt Jr. following the 2016 national championships. “He doesn’t do a lot of flashy things, but he finds ways to win. He found his way on the podium again. He’s a good student. I couldn’t be more proud of Ken and what he’s done.”
Part of a pipeline of recent Milford-to-Concordia success stories such as Rakow and Chandler Folkerts, Burkhardt Jr. has made a name for himself. Says Burkhardt Jr., “It’s a small community, but we have that hard-work mentality that’s produced a lot of high-quality athletes.”
A hard worker who likes to snowboard, hunt and fish in his free time, Burkhardt Jr. aspires for a higher perch on the podium this March. Last season the program broke through with its first-ever individual national champion. Having soaked in that moment, Burkhardt Jr. would like to add his name to the list.
“I’m just trying to do all the right things,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “I’m helping the guys underneath me. I’m trying to get extra workouts in and lifts. I’m eating right – Thanksgiving I ate a lot. I’m trying to live the right lifestyle so hopefully I come out on top.”
In many respects, Burkhardt Jr. has already come out on top. In addition to his triumphs on the mat, he worked his way onto the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Academic list. Plus, he conquered his older sisters, Keelee and Kelsey. Says Burkhardt Jr., “As a little kid I was getting beat up by my sisters quite a bit.”
They must be proud of not-so-little brother now. Supported by his father Ken Sr., Burkhardt Jr. often went to multiple wrestling tournaments every weekend as a youngster. The linebacker-turned-All-American wrestler has found his passion – and he’s thriving. Says Burkhardt Jr., “Wrestling was where my heart was.”