Packers' Oren Burks out to show he's versatile on, off the field

"He is a very well-rounded individual, high character, comes from a strong family that way," Packers co-director of player personnel John Wojciechowski said of Oren Burks. "All are achievers. We're very impressed with this player. We're glad we got him." Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Oren Burks didn't say when he first heard the expression, but it's one he plans to live by now that football is his full-time job.

It was the first thing the Green Bay Packers rookie linebacker brought up during a recent interview with ESPN.

"Be where your feet are," Burks said.

"If I'm here in the building, it's all business. I've got to get the work done, get in the playbook and study. But I'm very passionate about other things as well, making an impact in my community. That's my free time, really."

At Vanderbilt, Burks gained prominence for both his football acumen and his involvement in the community and willingness to use his platform to discuss social issues. He was voted team captain and selected three times to the SEC All-Academic honor roll. He co-founded REVAMP -- Revitalizing and Empowering Vanderbilt's African-American Male Population.

"We wanted to join the community there," Burks said, "and dispel some of the negative stereotypes about black males on campus and in society [through] a lot community service in Nashville."

Burks, a native of Fairfax Station, Virginia, also served as the president of the school's student-athlete advisory council, a liaison between student-athletes and the campus administration.

"It was a huge honor because there are so many people doing amazing things at Vanderbilt," Burks said of his SAAC presidency.

And yes, he publicly discussed the national-anthem protests that swept through the NFL last season. At one point, Burks told The Tennessean newspaper that if his team were on the field for the anthem (most college teams aren't on the field at that time), he would "take a knee because I feel that passionate about it."

The "it" in this case was social injustice and racial inequality.

"I think people missed the issue and missed the point," Burks said. "It's not a protest of the anthem. It's about what it takes to move forward."

It became an issue during the pre-draft process, when teams questioned Burks' motives. Although he said he wasn't asked directly whether he would kneel during the anthem, he said he was asked "things like, 'Are you going to be devoted to football?' The questions were more along those lines."

When asked whether he took offense to that, Burks said: "That's kind of what Vanderbilt guys are used to. We're guys that have a brain outside of football. This is a game I love, and I've been playing it for a long time, and I'm going to make my opportunity count."

Last summer, he was featured on the cover of the NCAA's magazine with the caption: "Defending what's right: Vanderbilt's Oren Burks tackles society's pressing questions."

He completed his degree in human and organizational development after the fall semester last season. His younger sister, Whitney, plays softball at Stanford. His father works as an engineer and his mother as a program-operations manager.

"He is a very well-rounded individual, high character, comes from a strong family that way," Packers co-director of player personnel John Wojciechowski said. "All are achievers. We're very impressed with this player. We're glad we got him."

As versatile as Burks appeared off the field, he's equally so on the field. He played three different positions in college: safety, outside linebacker and inside linebacker. The Packers view Burks as an inside linebacker who can play the run, drop into coverage and even blitz if called upon.

"I think because of his athleticism there's more of a need for guys like him," Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. "At the same time, this is no small man now. He's over 6-3. He's 233 pounds, he was the No. 1 tester of the inside linebackers on our board. So he is not small by any means for today's inside linebackers. We think he's very versatile, the fact he can play both inside spots."

So far, it's been a steep learning curve for Burks. At last week's organized team activities, he was one of a handful of rookies who drew the ire of new inside linebackers coach/run game coordinator Patrick Graham, who could be heard screaming and cursing out players.

That's why Burks said he's all-in on football, especially when he's at Lambeau Field and home studying his playbook. But, he added, with time and success on the field will come opportunities to do the same kind of off-the-field work he did in school.

"I feel like I'm always going to be doing good works," he said. "I just won't be the main focal point for running a program. There's a lot of guys in the locker room that are involved in the community, involved socially. There's plenty of guys that have causes to latch on to."