Like many promising football players, Jarrel Burnett found his own sporting career hampered by injury.
He never became a Division I athlete like he originally hoped. But he still found passion and purpose through playing football.
That’s why today he loves to teach the game.
“It’s great that Beau Pribula is at Penn State, but for every one of his, there’s a lot of people that aren’t going to get to that level,” Burnett said. “But I still remember the lessons I learned from my college coaches and those lessons will take you much further in life than just football.”
Burnett was approved as the new head football coach at Hanover High School last week. The 36-year-old has been an assistant coach at South Western since 2017. According to school board records, Burnett will receive an annual stipend of $5,125.
He’s now taking over a program that didn’t have an official head coach last season. Hannover “parted ways” with former head coach Wil Rider days before the season opener against Annville-Cleona in August. Both the school and Rider declined to comment on the situation. Assistant coaches Zac Carrick, Bryant Descheemaeker, Steve Weaver and Jon Ross share coaching responsibilities during a 3-7 season.
It was Hannover’s fifth straight losing season and seventh without a win since the Nighthawks went 9-2 in 2015. Like many small schools in the region, Hanover has struggled with attendance in recent years and typically had 25 to 30 players on its varsity roster.
But Hanover sporting director Adam Mowrer said 45 students turned up for Burnett’s introductory team meeting last week.
“There’s a lot of excitement right now from the kids I’ve spoken to,” Mowrer said. “The biggest thing is to get the numbers up, and[Burnett]has emphasized getting kids involved and building from adolescence to varsity level. He has a great personality, he can relate to children and he put emphasis on teaching the basics.”
Burnett, who is a first-time head coach, said teaching fundamentals is one of his greatest strengths.
He described himself as an “old-school-new-school” coach who is ready to play football but can still relate to his players “like a Mike Tomlin or John Harbaugh player-coach”.
“Football can be fun,” said Burnett. “Gone are the days when kids just wanted to sit on the sidelines. You have to integrate everyone and bring enthusiasm. I’m someone who cares about the kids and wants to build better people because football is about life. My Program will be based on academics, community service and athletics. We need to combine those things.”
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Burnett moved extensively growing up in a military family but spent his high school years in Hartford County, Md. As a fullback, he said he was recruited by Division I football programs until he tore his cruciate ligament in his senior year in 2004. He thought he had lost everything, but a conversation with his mother, who was serving in Iraq, made him realize, “I have to overcome.”
He continued to play in Division II Seton Hill at PSAC until another knee injury ended his career. By then, the “film junkie” knew he wanted to get into coaching and in 2009 accepted an assistantship at Greensburg Central Catholic outside of Pittsburgh.
A few years later he took a job as a parole officer in Carroll County, Md. and moved his family to the South Western School District. He also worked at the Longhorn Steakhouse and frequently spoke to his customers about football. One of them, New Oxford defense coordinator Gene Kraus, eventually offered him a job with the Colonials.
That led to a position at South Western where he coached defense under Chris Heilman and then head coach Tony Shermeyer. Burnett said he helped current Mustangs defensive coordinator Tom Trone develop the game plans, which helped him develop as a coach.
“Working under them was a blessing,” Burnett said of Shermeyer and Trone. “Tony was a hands-on trainer who welcomed my ideas. He looked at it like we were all in it together. That’s the way I am. I’m the last vote, but everyone (on the coaching staff) is equal.”
Burnett is now the second blackhead football coach in the YAIAA alongside East York’s Bud Kyle. Both were discontinued in the last calendar year. Burnett said while he considers it a “source of pride” to be one of the region’s few head coaches, it “doesn’t give me an extra chip on my shoulder because at the end of the day I’m a different head coach.”
In general, Burnett sees himself as “a unique person who sees life differently”. He has three children and still balances two jobs, but said he would sometimes train at 4am with Southwestern players to get to know them better.
“I’m not a phenomenal talent, but I consider myself a winner,” Burnett said. “You might not like watching football with me because I don’t look from a fan’s perspective. I want to find out the specifics. I love studying how the mind works and how people tick. At the restaurant I want that to put a smile on someone’s face I want to see an athlete achieve a goal and see the satisfaction on their face (As a probation officer) I want to see someone who is considered a criminal and becomes a productive member of society. I hope to inspire the youth in our area. I’m just a different person.”
Burnett is taking over a program that just completed four-year starting quarterback and all-time YAIAA passing yards leader Chase Roberts. But the Nighthawks are bringing back star receiver Joey Wilkinson, and Burnett said rising junior Gavin Trish could be a dynamic player at quarterback.
Burnett knows the Nighthawks have struggled in recent years, but he hopes to eventually grow the program to the point where it can not only win but compete in the postseason.
“I want to hang out with Lancaster and Harrisburg,” he said while noting that three Mid-Penn teams made the state finals last season. “I felt nothing but excitement. I was almost surprised when we had 45 to 46 kids and then maybe 18 would come out of eighth grade. Now let’s talk about having better practices and having JV games every week. I’ve seen nothing but positive things so far.”
Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, [email protected] or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.