Issiah Burks has heard all the jokes. The Hemet, Calif., native smiles when people refer to him as “Dr. Burks” in acknowledgement of his extended stay as a member of the Concordia University Wrestling program. A collegiate career that began back in the fall of 2017 has included the types of ups and downs that many athletes endure while chasing their dreams.
It’s those trials and disappointments, combined with the years of strife and toil, that made last week’s rise to the top of the podium that much sweeter for the Bulldogs’ sixth-year competitor. Lurking off the radar, Burks emerged as the 2023 GPAC tournament’s biggest Cinderella story.
“It still hasn’t sunk in that I won conference,” Burks said. “At the time, I was thinking about it being my last shot and never qualifying for nationals. Now I can think about how I won conference and I was seeded fifth. It feels pretty good. I can go back and watch the film and can say, ‘yeah, I did that.’ I’m trying to move forward and not dwell too much on it because we have the national tournament to go to. Winning conference is great, but the goal is to win at nationals.”
It was now or never, and Burks clearly felt the urgency. It was as if Burks had captured each of the Infinity Stones, harnessed their power and unleashed them upon unwitting GPAC opponents. As part of his run to the GPAC tournament title, Burks earned two pins, a major decision and an 11-4 upset of NAIA 12th-ranked Caleb Connor of Morningside. Burks’ pin in the quarterfinals came after 19 seconds (over No. 19 Garrett Arment) and he wiped out Kaleb Bigelow in just 1:15 in the championship bout. All this from a guy who, the previous three GPAC tournaments, placed fifth, fifth and fourth, respectively, while always coming up just short of a bid to nationals.
The results in 2023 were stunningly dominant for Burks, who had entered the tournament with a 13-11 season record. By his own admission, he’s been too inconsistent throughout his college career. For Head Coach Chase Clasen and assistant Tyree Cox, the task was to figure out how to boost Burks’ mental game and make him understand just how good he could be if the pieces came together. Last week, Burks could have solved a Rubik’s Cube.
Said Clasen after the tournament, “There was nobody in the country that was going to beat Issiah Burks this weekend. If this was in the national tournament, he would have been a national champion. When he’s on, he’s on. We have to ride that momentum now going into nationals and not get too high up. We’ve still got more matches to win. He does all the right things. I couldn’t ask for a better athlete. Everything he’s worked for is coming to fruition.”
The circuitous route to the national championships started when Burks committed to Concordia without even visiting the campus. He was signed by then Head Coach Andrew Nicola (who first saw Burks at a tournament in Vegas) without knowing the type of adversity he would be hit with. His career has continued into 2022-23 because of a series of circumstances that included a redshirt year as a freshman, an ACL tear that forced him out in 2018-19 and the ‘COVID-19 season’ of 2020-21. Not only that, Burks has been around for four different head coaches and he was part of a 2019-20 squad that won GPAC regular season and tournament titles.
He's seen a lot of things – but never the spectacle of a grand national tournament venue. Call it a case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Burks didn’t want to miss out on one final shot. Prior to the start of this season, Burks explained the significance of reaching the 2023 national tournament. “It means the world to me right now,” Burks said. “I’ve come so close to going to nationals the last couple of years and fell a little bit short. I get one last chance. I want to make it worth it and prove that I can compete with those guys. I know I can.”
It just seemed to take Burks a little while to truly believe he could reign atop the GPAC. The mentality had to match his talent – or he would be sitting home this March. Said Burks, “A big thing was talking about maintaining consistency. That’s something I’ve lacked in my career. I can be the best practice guy and work hard and practice, but it has to translate when I wrestle. I just made that switch at the conference tournament. I had to realize that I am pretty good.”
It's clear that Burks has a high ceiling when locked in. When it came to the GPAC tournament, Burks felt the right kind of anxiousness and nervousness. Mostly, he just wanted to wrestle. Burks went 2-0 on the first day of the conference tournament and then had the night to think about how he might attack the 12th-ranked Connor. Burks entered the ring as an underdog, but it would have been hard to tell by how he took immediate control.
“I really couldn’t sleep that much,” Burks said of the night before. “It wasn’t because I was nervous – I was excited. I never wrestled him before, but I knew in my heart I could beat him. The entire day I couldn’t wait to wrestle. During warmups, I was joking with Coach (Tyree) Cox and having a good time. I had to get into the right mindset.”
Burks wrestled like a man possessed, on a clear mission with one singular goal. Along the way, Burks moved past Kodie Cole into the top five on the all-time wins list for Concordia Wrestling. With 76 career wins, Burks is now deadlocked with former teammate Mario Ybarra at No. 4. That fact prompted Burks to reconnect with Ybarra, just to let him know. Always a class act, Ybarra instructed Burks to “go get that win” that would push him to No. 4 by himself.
So focused on the immediate future, Burks said he did not quite know what the next step would be once he finished his college wrestling career and earned his MBA. No, he won’t be getting a doctorate! He says he’s interested in acquiring a real estate license and sticking around the area. Despite the weather, Nebraska has grown on the Californian, who barely knew where Nebraska was on a map six years ago.
All of that can wait. On his birthday, March 3, Burks will be on the mat at Hartman Arena in Park City, Kan., site of the 2023 NAIA Wrestling National Championships. It’s exactly the birthday present he would have asked for. (Back in Hemet, his family will be watching online). In many ways, the weight of the world has lifted from Burks. Just like he was at the GPAC Championships, Burks will be an underdog. If he can bottle up the same mindset and execution deployed at the GPAC tournament, he’ll be an under-dog that bites.
Says Burks, “I just need to fine-tune some stuff. I’m pretty excited. I don’t feel nervous at all going into it. I’m just excited to get out there. Our coaches always talk about that the rankings don’t matter. Anything can happen.”