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Mike Burke On Balancing

Fatherhood and Pro Soccer

Fans call Richmond Kicker Mike Burke, who has played in 250 plus soccer games, garnered numerous MVP honors, and holds the team’s all-time assist title, a “skilled playmaker” and “exciting to watch.” His brothers refer to him as a “manny.”

He doesn’t mind that they rib him for being a stay-athome dad.

“They call me a manny,” he says with a smile, “but I love being a stay-at-home dad. I am so lucky to be with the kids and interact with them every day.” Burke, Richmond Kickers veteran midfielder and coach of the Kickers U-11 Girls Elite and U-11 Boys Elite teams, gives his all to his family. “Being a dad now, my kids are more important than any soccer sporting event,” he says.

Burke married his wife, Audrey, in 2005. The couple has two children, Declan, 2½ and 8-month-old Piper. Burke elected to stay at home with the kids because his schedule was more lax than the hours his wife works as a secretary at an area law firm.

Parenting has given him a new appreciation for the responsibilities that stay-at-home moms have assumed for years. “Taking care of the kids is the hardest thing I have done in my life,” he admits. “I don’t think anything in life can prepare you for it.”

What has helped shape his attitude is coaching young players. He hopes that fatherhood helps him become a better coach, and that coaching helps Him become a better dad. “Before I had kids, coaching soccer had a different perspective,” he says. “I’ve always had patience when coaching. Hopefully it will help me have patience with my own kids.”

Each time he sees the excitement on the faces of his young soccer players, Burke flashes back to his own childhood. All three of his older brothers played competitive soccer and rooted for him when he began playing soccer at five years old. “That was a great feeling, looking up to them and wanting to be like them,” he says.

Retired Richmond Kicker Rob Ukrop remembers when Burke would tag along with his older brother, Pat, one of Ukrop’s teammates on the Kickers, to team practices when he was only 13 or 14. “He was a hot shot little kid with the ball,” Ukrop says.

Burke didn’t think professional soccer was an option until he played the sport at Loyola College. “We had never had a national professional league in this country until I was in college. For me it was a late epiphany,” he says.

He left college in his second year because he felt he “wasn’t ready” for the experience. Afterward, he trained in Columbia, South America before playing for the Jacksonville Cyclones in 1998. The trip gave him a new perspective on how much people in America take for granted. “In South America, soccer is their life,” he says. “If they don’t play well, they end up in poverty. When they go to practice they leave everything out on the field. That is so different than the approach that kids playing in this country have.”

In 2000, Burke was drafted in the MLS (Major League Soccer) Superdraft by D.C. United. He played in seven games before being released and re-signed by the Dallas Burn. The major league step up was sobering for Burke. “D.C. United is one of the most well known teams,” he says. “You are playing with guys you watch on television.”

He soon found that playing in the MLS could be overwhelming. “I was a small fish in a big pond,” he says. “I was never sure how things were going. My nerves got the best of me. I never settled into being comfortable.” Since leaving the MLS, Burke has turned down several chances to go back. “I wanted to stay in one place and pursue coaching,” he says. “The risk of going back there wasn’t worth it.”

Burke, who has been referred to as a “technically gifted soccer player” by teammates, had his first full season with the Kickers in 2001. Since then he has been named Supporter’s Choice MVP five consecutive times and Player’s Choice MVP twice. In 2006 and 2008, he won both awards. He started in his post as assistant technical director with the Richmond Kickers Youth Soccer Club during the 2003-04 season.

Leigh Cowlishaw, director of soccer and head coach of the pro team, recognizes Burke’s coaching talent. “One of the big reasons we love having him as part of the Kickers is he is such a positive role model with younger players. What sets him apart is that he is able to demonstrate the skills required for the kids and also on the field. He loves working with kids, coaching, directing and teaching the next generation of soccer players.”

Coaching, for Burke, is more than teaching the sport to kids; it also helps them learn life skills. “To a certain degree you are their soccer coach but you are helping them try to be better individuals,” he says. “If they look up to me as their coach and hear from me the same things their parents are telling them, it might make an impression.”

Burke is always aware of what he says when he’s coaching and how he handles himself because he understands that kids are impressionable. “Sometimes I lose sight of how much they look up to me because I am their coach,” he says. “There are times when I leave the game and think ‘Was I a little too hard?’ Sometimes being in the moment gets the best of you.”

He admits he is impatient. “I have no patience with everyday things like traffic,” he says, adding that his dad was impatient, as well. Ever since he was young, Burke has wanted to be like his father, Robert. “We are very close. We talk every day. I guess I’m following in my dad’s footsteps. My life is not My life anymore; everything I do is for my kids.”

When it comes to youth soccer, Burke has some strong beliefs. One involves competition. He doesn’t agree with organizations that hand out trophies to every player at the end of the season. “Losing is a valuable lesson. It helps form who you are,” he says. “I do think you should be rewarded for your work and that is the coach’s job and the parents’ job.”

He also believes that parents can become too involved in their children’s participation in sports, both on and off the field. “The easiest way for a kid not to enjoy soccer is to be forced to do it,” he says. “Parents should drop their kids off and go somewhere else during practice and let the coach coach and their kids socially interact with other kids. If kids get conflicting information on the sideline, it’s hard for them.”

At 33, Burke is contemplating his own future as a soccer player. This is his last year under contract. “Whether I come back is a question mark,” he says.

When it comes to his own kids playing soccer, the verdict is still out, he says. “There is a huge part of me that wants them to play soccer and a huge part that doesn’t, just because I played professional soccer. I don’t want them to have to live up to that.”

Joan Tupponce
An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.
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