Aaron Burnside, ’22, is donning a new type of uniform.
The 24-year-old defensive end joined the military after graduating high school and is now bringing five years of army experience to the Allegheny football team and into the classroom.
“He can really teach our players, not only our freshmen, but also our seniors — who he’s older than — he can teach everybody a lot, even our coaches, a lot about sacrifice, commitment, handling adversity, all of those things,” said William Hammer, head football coach. “He can really speak to that in a real-life way, and I think that’s important for our guys to see, especially our young guys.”
Burnside said being a soldier turned student gives him a new perspective and appreciation for the student athlete experience.
“I can kind of see playing football and coming to school from a completely different perspective now that I’m 24,” Burnside said. “At the same time, I think I really place a larger value on my education and even football, too. Going back on the field — I hadn’t played football in six years — so going back out on the field and putting a helmet and shoulder pads on was kind of surreal at first.”
Burnside described his presence on the team as a conspicuous one. He said he has had to adjust to his role and the differing reactions to his presence.
“I understand that some of these guys have maybe never seen or spoken to somebody about the military that’s been in the military besides maybe a recruiter,” Burnside said. “I think I have to understand where I’m at to feel maybe not insecure about it.”
Marcus Davenport, ’20, said one of the themes the team is focusing on this year is overcoming adversity. On the first day of practice, Burnside shared his personal experience with adversity in his military career.
“He came on our team already as a good resource for our team,” Davenport said.
Burnside said he feels pressure to act in such a way that reflects positively on the army during his time on the football team.
“In a way, I kind of represent maybe not the military as a whole, but the army,” Burnside said. “If I’m on the field or something, if we’re running sprints, I can’t be the one that’s falling out and falling back, you know.”
For now, the team is adjusting to Burnside’s presence and the novelty of what he represents, according to Burnside.
Burnside’s journey to the Allegheny team began when he was nine years old. Burnside continued to play and played for Cameron County High School, where he started on both offense and defense during his 11th and 12th grade years. Burnside also set the district sack record in 2011. While in high school, Burnside played alongside Andrew Fragale, who is now Allegheny’s defensive line coach.
Fragale played a significant role in bringing Burnside to Allegheny, according to Burnside. He said having the connection to the coaching staff made the choice to come to Allegheny and play football an easier one.
Hammer expressed his appreciation for Burnside’s decision.
“Coach Fragale told me he was interested and I met him, loved him, thought he would be an awesome addition to our team, and we got him decided he was going to play and come to Allegheny,” Hammer said. “I think he’s enjoying the heck out of it, and we’re loving having him on the team.”
Burnside said he knew he did not want to go to college to play sports immediately after graduating from high school.
“I don’t think that at my age then that I would have been mature enough, maybe, or disciplined enough to be able to handle playing sports and going to school at the same time,” Burnside said. “I was an alright student. I was definitely a better athlete than student.”
Burnside did know, however, that he wanted to join the military, and at 18, he enlisted in the army and signed a five-year contract. Burnside was stationed in South Korea and in Fort Drum, New York, during his time in the service. He said his time in the military made him better prepared to enter the world.
“I think my best takeaways were definitely the characteristics that I was able to develop as a soldier to really utilize in the real world once I got out — discipline, leadership qualities, no doubt, social skills,” Burnside said.
In addition to being prepared for the real world, Burnside said the mindset he developed in the army ensured he was better prepared for the classroom.
“I’m in a school setting, so it’s kind of structured the same way in a sense,” Burnside said. “At the same time, I’m making all my own decisions now. It’s not like I have somebody over my shoulder 24/7 like I did, so that helps me out considerably, being able to be self-disciplined.”
In addition to having a personal connection to Fragale, Burnside said he was drawn to Allegheny by the school’s academics and closeness to his hometown of Emporium, PA.
“I knew it was going to be mentally challenging for me, and that’s something that I really wanted,” Burnside said.