Growing up, many kids dream of becoming star athletes in college, and hopefully the pros. Being from Richmond, some kids dream of playing for the VCU Rams. Not only would they be able to play a Division I sport, but they would also have the opportunity to play their respective sport on scholarship. For Richmond-native Torey Burston, the whole chain has now become complete. Thanks to a “hard-working” attitude according to Head Coach Will Wade, he was awarded a scholarship for his senior year in 2016-17.
“It’s still surreal to me, I still don’t think about it,” said Burston. “I was in practice the other day and thought, “Man, I’ve got a scholarship.” Randomly it always hits me but I thought it was more vital for me to speak up even more now. Coach Wade had a meeting with Jordan Burgess and I, and told us we were the leaders of the team, and that we carry more weight than we think; even more weight than he does. He told me I have to speak up now and be the leader.”
It was a stealthy operation by Wade. On Nov. 3, Wade called the team back into the film room after practice. Many players wondered what was up, but Burston brushed it off and was ready to take in some more film.
“I see these things on ESPN all the time and it never dawned on me that that would be the moment I would get a scholarship because we do a “blue collar” player every week. Whoever is that player wears a blue jersey during practice. We went through our scouting report for that week, and we came back into the film room and everybody was like, ‘why are we back in here?’ When he showed the video of me I just thought he was recognizing the blue collar worker since he didn’t give one the previous week. At the end of the slide, it said ‘You get what you earn.”’ That’s when he pulled the paper out of the folder and I put two and two together and I was just amazed.”
Wade speaks passionately when Burston is the subject of conversation.
“We didn’t give Torey anything. He earned it,” said Wade. “He’s done everything we’ve asked and he deserved it. He gives us energy, and we see it every day in practice. He’s one of, if not, our most respected player on the team. Our guys really resonate with his story and how hard he’s worked while paying his own way through college, which I think some of our guys think they are working hard but they are on scholarship. You look at Torey, and he’s working his tail off. I was happy that we were able to make it happen for him.”
Burston couldn’t wait to call his family and tell them the the news.
“My grandma was ecstatic. She said, “That means you don’t have to pay any more loans?” I told her I still have some loans to pay off but it stops for now. My uncle, who is like my father figure, was really happy for me. He told me it finally paid off and not to take it for granted and stay humble and keep working as if you’re a walk-on.”
Burston has always possessed exceptional athletic ability, starring at Henrico High School until his junior year, where he then transferred to Trinity. Describing his switch as a “completely different experience”, Burston developed new interests. In an attempt to get out of his shell, he picked up football and lacrosse.
“I decided to play football and I ended up being pretty good at it. I received some interest from UVA and other schools. Those two years playing football made me think about flipping and seeing where I could go with football. I had already excelled at basketball and I had only played football for two years so I thought about playing football in college…. I started lacrosse my senior year after I was done with football and basketball. I thought I’d just try something new. I wasn’t very good at lacrosse, like I couldn’t catch a ball or anything. My best friend, Ben Johnson, who was really good at lacrosse took time with me to teach me stick handling skills and catching the ball. A little bit before mid-season I was starting and scoring goals. I wondered sometimes what it would have been like if I had kept on playing lacrosse.”
But Burston’s first love was basketball, and despite only light interest from Division I schools, he knew it was something he wanted to pursue. Growing up, Burston built relationships with other local products and current teammates Burgess and Jonathan Williams.
“I grew up playing against Jordan on Team Richmond in AAU. We actually didn’t like each other, but as I got older I understood it was just a rivalry and we ended up becoming really good friends. We played AAU together our junior year of high school and we finished No. 12 in the country out of 250 teams. [After he committed to VCU], my AAU coach asked him if he thought I had any chance of walking on at VCU, and he said he didn’t know if they were looking for anyone but he thought I could do it. Having that confidence from him, knowing how hard VCU works, gave me a confidence boost. I’ve known Johnny too. He’s from the same area. I’m a big fan of his too.”
Burston would get his chance months later, after a call from former VCU assistant coach and current Head Coach at Rice, Mike Rhoades, gave Burston the door of opportunity to make a career on the hardwood at VCU.
“Coach Rhoades called me one night after practice and asked me if I would like to walk on at VCU, and I told him yeah. We went through the process of trying to enroll in school. This was in November, and he was trying to get me to come in January. I had to take an SAT prep class to get my SAT score up a little higher to meet VCU’s standards and get enrolled first as a student. That was the first step in the process that I went through in terms of coming to VCU to walk on. As soon as I got to VCU I went through a couple of practices with Coach Wade. I started practicing with the team and going through offensive stuff and tried to get better defensively.”
The results hit home for the humble Burston, as his acceptance to VCU just began what would be the ultimate road of hard work and dedication to get where he is in Black and Gold today.
“It was a good, humbling experience for me. All my friends in my graduating class had already been in college for a semester, and having been an athletic star at Trinity, it was a downer for me not being in college. I knew something would end up happening for me but I was just in a rush to get to college and start a career. It was a great day for me. That night around 10:30 I was told I was accepted in, I wanted to make fast progress in terms on moving onto campus and be able to practice when the team got back from break. That was December 26, and that was the day I met Gene and Honey Hunt who were big fans of VCU. I met with them the day I was moving into VCU and we just went over some history about the program. That day was just a heartfelt day for me.”
As he began his journey as a VCU Ram under Shaka Smart, Burston found his way with guidance from not just his head coach, but also Rhoades and Wade, both assistants at the time.
“I got the aggressiveness mindset from Coach Rhoades. Coach Wade is a big thinker of the game. He sees things that a normal basketball player may not see. The learning process came a lot from Coach Wade. He’s a big student of the game and he’s helped me learn the game more and seek out the things that he sees from a coach’s standpoint. From Coach Smart I learned a lot about becoming a man and following the process. He was really big on enthusiasm so I took being enthusiastic from him. He taught me to be in the moment, you can’t really think about a test you may have failed a day ago. Once you step between those lines on the court, you need to just have fun. He taught me that everything is a blessing. When you’re on the court, you’re a college athlete and not many people get to do that.”
Burston says VCU’s Atlantic 10 Championship in 2014-15 is one of his fondest memories to this point in a VCU uniform.
“Winning the A-10 tournament is something I will never forget my sophomore year. The team was so family oriented. We did everything together. Even though that team went through some trials with Briante tore his ACL and us losing four games in a row. I’ll never forget that bond we had as a team or that moment when we won it and the ribbons were falling from the sky and cutting the net down.”
But with the good comes the tough, as Burston also said he grew not just as a man, but also saw the evolution of VCU’s basketball program in a positive light when he saw Smart take another opportunity and leave VCU after the conclusion of that season.
“When he came into the room his eyes were red, you could he had been crying and getting really emotional. You knew he was leaving when he came in the room. A lot of thoughts go through your mind when the coach leaves and you have to start over. It wasn’t a bad moment for me. I’m really big on if you have a better opportunity for yourself that you should take it no matter how bad it may be for other people. I remember that moment as a growing point for me and VCU’s program as well.”
But now in his senior year, Burston has prepared for his final ride, and has used the scholarship to help further his presence as a leader on the team.
“As a freshman, I redshirted, so I had an extra year, and you never think about it in the moment. I did, though. I thought about what’s next for me. It’s not really guaranteed for me to play at the next level in the NBA or overseas so I’m always a person that’s thinking what’s next for me. I saw how fast Melvin [Johnson]’s senior year went by, so just the preparation into being a vocal leader and leading by example from my junior year to my senior year and making sure I could do everything I possibly could from a work ethic point for myself and pushing my teammates to be as good as they could be and for the other four seniors and I to go to the tournament and not get out in the first round. You have a lot more urgency when you’re a senior. You need to do everything right and not settle for your teammate being lazy when they have three more years left. It’ll be over before you know it.”
Along with his family and friends, he credits the fans of VCU with a lot of his success on and off the court. Now with a scholarship, he looks to take things to the next level.
“It’s a confidence booster for me. I’ve seen some of the stuff on Twitter saying ‘finally he got one’ and ‘he deserves it.’ Knowing that, knowing that the fans who cheer for us everyday and want us to do so well believe in me that much builds me up and makes me even more hungry in practice to have the confidence to do what I know I can do. The fans believe in you so you have to believe in yourself too.”
According to Coach Wade, he also feels the same way. “I think him earning his scholarship has given him a little more entitlement and he feels more empowered. I think that really helps, and the guys respect him.”
In classic fashion, Burston continues to stay humble and proud to wear the Black and Gold, and looks to help contribute to a hopeful 2016-17 campaign for the Rams.
“I never expected it: I never thought that even as hard as I work that I deserved a scholarship. I just took every day, day by day, and just kept working hard whether I got one or not, but when he gave it to me I knew it was a true blessing. Every day I wake up I know I have 13 teammates and thousands of fans that love me as if I was family to them. I just want to tell you, Ram fans, thank you and I appreciate the support. I’ll keep going for you guys.”