- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
ATHENS, Ga. -- When Chris Burnette decided to ask the biggest question of his life, about 50 of his Georgia teammates came along to offer moral support.
So it’s a good thing that Arielle Haynes, now his fiancee, accepted when Burnette -- the Bulldogs’ starting right guard -- proposed marriage Sunday at a church service. (Watch the video on YouTube.)
“I was sitting kind of near [left tackle Kenarious Gates] and he looks at me and says, ‘If she says no, we’re taking her out back.’ We knew she wasn’t going to say no, but it was just funny,” joked center David Andrews. “I think that says a lot about this team and how we all have each other’s backs no matter what. But it was awesome and there’s not a better person she could marry than Chris.”
Burnette has always been one of the Bulldogs’ most dependable players away from the field.
The salutatorian in his graduating class at Troup County High School in LaGrange, Ga., Burnette has always been a good student -- and the finance major’s multiple designations on the SEC Academic Honor Roll and UGA Athletic Director’s Honor Roll are good examples of his academic bona fides. And his solid citizenship and strong faith are among the reasons he ranks among the Bulldogs’ most well-liked players.
“Everybody respects Chris. He’s a guy that’s never going to let you down,” said senior receiver Tavarres King, one of the many Bulldogs who attended the church service to witness Burnette’s surprise proposal. “If you need anything, he’s going to be there to do it for you. You can ask anybody, if they ever asked Chris for anything, he’s done it. He’s a great guy and we want to be there for him.”
Now Burnette’s on-field performance is beginning to match his value to the team within the locker room, following a couple of injury-riddled seasons that prevented him from performing up to his status as one of the Bulldogs’ top signees in 2009.
ESPN rated the U.S. Army All-American as the nation’s No. 58 overall prospect and No. 2 guard before he redshirted in 2009. He might have contributed on the line in 2010, but instead sat out the entire season after suffering a severe concussion during preseason and then dislocating his knee and tearing his medial collateral ligament upon his return to practice -- an injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season.
Burnette started the opener against Boise State last season and appeared in 12 games -- he missed the Ole Miss and Mississippi State games with another knee injury -- and finally began to shake off the rust from his long layoff. And that progress has only continued this season, as he has been Georgia’s most consistent performer on its improving offensive line.
“I feel like I’ve really just been trying to focus on going as hard as I can and not worrying about mistakes,” Burnette said. “I think last year I was kind of worried about my knee at times and worried about the stage and not wanting to screw it up. Now I’m just like, ‘You know what? Mistakes are going to happen.
"Take it one play at a time and if you screw up one play, forget it and move onto the next one and just try to go as hard as I can.’ ”
Burnette has started 16 games in his college career, including the last 13 in a row, tying him with Gates as the Bulldogs’ most experienced starting linemen. And after following possibly the most consistent blocking effort of his career against Florida Atlantic with another solid performance against Vanderbilt last Saturday, Burnette is starting to look like a veteran.
Even to his demanding position coach, Will Friend.
“He got better as the year went on last year and I think as the season went on that he may have been, going back and looking at the cutups, he may have been our second-best lineman in productivity the last three or four games of the year,” said Friend, the Bulldogs’ second-year offensive line coach. “He’s smart and he’s a good athlete and he’s doing well. This is like Game 17 for him and he’s kind of starting to play like a guy that’s started 17 games.”
Not only does Friend look to Burnette for leadership among the linemen, but he also uses him as a teacher on the field.
The Bulldogs are breaking in a true freshman, John Theus, at right tackle, which is a lot to ask of anyone lining up across from some of the dynamic pass-rush specialists he’ll face in the SEC. But if Theus ever needs help remembering an assignment or determining who to block, he knows the man to his left will be there to assist.
“Having him next to me, if I don’t ever know anything, Chris knows it and he can tell me,” Theus said. “He’s always there for me and he’s brought me along a long way. I would say on and off the field, he’s brought me a long way. He’s a good role model for me.”
Which brings us to Sunday’s proposal.
Theus is not the only player who called Burnette a role model -- an unusual description for a teen or 20-something to use when referring to a peer. But the team’s admiration for their teammate prompted so many of them to spread out at Sunday’s church service -- Burnette asked them not to group together in order to throw his girlfriend off the scent -- and join him in an impromptu touchdown dance after Haynes agreed to become his wife.
“It was crazy,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I was second row. I think about 20 or 30 of us just rushed the stage and we were going crazy with him. It was definitely a really neat thing to see.”
Another attendee -- senior linebacker Christian Robinson, who participates in a Bible study with Burnette each Friday before football games -- said the big group of players who opted to share the big moment with their teammate, and celebrate afterwards, is an example of the Bulldogs’ improved team chemistry.
While Burnette is certainly not the only Bulldog who helps set such a tone, he obviously wields a positive influence in the locker room -- and that makes the job much easier for Georgia’s coaching staff.
“In order to be a good leader, I think you have to be very strong in your character and I don’t know if there’s anybody stronger in character than Chris,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “The guys know it and respect that about him. So when he talks, they listen.”
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