WASHINGTON — The Bowling Green State University football team is celebrating Christmas away from home, preparing for its appearance in the Military Bowl Thursday.
Except for redshirt freshman Ryan Burbrink, who traveled a long, hard road — just to return home for the holiday.
Burbrink is a native of Shady Side, Md., which is 40 miles east of the nation’s capital. He attended DeMatha Catholic High School in a northern suburb of Hyattsville, Md.
“The night we found out we were playing in D.C., I couldn’t sleep,” Burbrink said. “I was calling people, texting people, telling them how to get tickets.
“In one of the future schedules we get to play Maryland, which is nice. But [with this game] I get to go home, and that’s very exciting.
“It’s such a great opportunity because my family and friends get to come and watch me play.”
It was a hard-earned opportunity for Burbrink, a 5-8, 181-pound former walk-on.
“I’ve been fighting an uphill battle my whole life,” he said. “People have said I’m too short, can’t run fast enough.
“People telling me I can’t do things has been my motivation to rise up and do what I do. It does get under my skin, though.”
Burbrink had a big senior season at DeMatha, catching 28 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns for a team that posted a 10-2 record. Earning first team all-state honors as a senior wasn’t good enough to earn a scholarship offer, though.
“Coming out of high school, I got the ‘too slow, too short’ from other teams,” he said. “I saw coach [Mark] Carney and coach [Warren] Ruggerio at Pittsburgh’s camp, and they said they were interested in seeing me in orange and brown.
“Two weeks before signing day I got a message from coach Carney asking me to come on an official visit. I came here, and it just felt good here. I visited a couple of other schools, but it felt right.”
Believe it or not, the weather in Bowling Green didn’t turn off the Washington native when he came to visit.
“It was snowing that day, and I didn’t know what to think,” Burbrink said with a laugh. “I couldn’t see any grass on the field.
“But it felt right. And coming here for camp, and then the start of school, it just felt right.”
There still was an obstacle for Burbrink to overcome: Not having a scholarship.
He spent 2011 on the practice squad, but he did more than just practice against the first-team defense. He watched Eugene “Binky” Cooper, a receiver of similar size, work with the starters.
“Binky was a good receiver, and I like to watch him,” Burbrink said of Cooper, who last season caught catch 67 passes for 808 yards and nine TDs. “People were telling him he was too slow, too short.
“I thought, ‘if Binky can do it, I can do it.’ ”
Burbrink made a big statement in the spring, catching the coaching staff’s eye and earning a spot among the team’s top receivers.
“I felt I had to do something to show the coaches that I can play,” he said. “I felt myself going out there, knowing the playbook, running routes, and catching the ball.”
Junior quarterback Matt Schilz admitted that Burbrink caught his eye during spring drills.
“He was a walk-on who worked harder than any other receiver,” Schilz said of Burbrink. “He’s smart, and he has a lot of knowledge about the game. I think he knows the offense better than anyone.
“He’s a tough kid, catching balls over the middle against Florida. He’s consistent, and he finds holes in the defense. I count him to make a play when I go to him.”
Ah, the Florida game. Burbrink’s first college start came in front of 84,704 screaming fans at the Swamp against one of the top teams in the country.
“There were a few sleepness nights [before that game],” he admitted. “They have some good guys on that team.
“But when you’re out on the field, the things you think about are catching the ball and making first downs, and that eases your mind a little bit.”
Burbrink caught a team-high eight passes for 45 yards in that contest and just kept rolling. He caught at least one pass in the 11 games he played — he missed the Rhode Island contest with a hamstring injury — and finished with 36 catches, third-most on the team, for 305 yards.
Now, he has come full circle, returning home as a Division I scholarship receiver on a bowl team.
“I can imagine how tough it was for him to leave his home state and come here just to get a shot at playing,” Schilz said. “He knew what he wanted to do, worked hard, and he has a scholarship now.
“He has done it.”
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.