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Like father like son.

When McCallie stages its Signing Day celebration today for the six seniors from its two-time defending TSSAA Division II-AAA state champion football team who have committed to college football teams, Jackson Burns will be the only one not putting his signature on scholarship papers.

Bruising brothers Austin and Zach Gentle will take their considerable brains and brawn to Harvard University. Running back B.J. Harris — the MVP of the 44-0 state title win over Memphis University School — will head to Missouri. Wide receiver/defensive back/quarterback/kick returner Eric Rivers, as versatile a talent as has ever played for the Blue Tornado, will spend his next four years at the University of Memphis. And linebacker/tight end John David Tessmann will do all he can to help the Davidson College Wildcats.

Even for a team good enough to win back-to-back state titles in the Volunteer State's toughest prep division, it's an impressive scholarship haul.

Or as McCallie coach Ralph Potter, whose matchless mother Lorraine passed away Sunday after a long illness, noted Tuesday: "Seeing the success we'd had the last couple of years, the leadership those seniors had shown, these guys stepped up from Day One.

"Even when we lost a couple late and looked like we weren't going anywhere, they stayed focused and positive and never had a bad practice because they knew that was the right thing to do. Really proud of what they've accomplished and I know they'll do well in college."

But as noteworthy as those scholarships are, only Burns will be following in his father Jeff's collegiate footsteps when he takes his defensive back skills to Tennessee Tech as a preferred walk-on. He's even hoping to wear the same No. 32 that Jeff wore during his time there as a tight end at the dawn of the 1990s.

"I've checked and there was a No. 32 on offense last year but not one on defense, so I'm hoping," said Jackson, who actually used his father's old locker at Tech's Tucker Stadium on the night the Blue Tornado beat MUS.

"For me, being 51, and graduating in 1992, it's definitely brought back memories I haven't thought about for a long time," said Jeff Burns. "Jackson's going to play for three coaches who were teammates of mine when I was there. It's very cool."

Like so much else in the world that trickles down, good athletic genes are shared by more than the Burnses on this McCallie squad. The Gentles' father, T.J., played at Middle Tennessee State. Rivers' mother LaShandra played college basketball at West Point. Talent begets talent.

But not many young athletes follow their parents to the same school and Jeff Burns began to worry that his constant talking up of Tech would drive Jackson to choose another program, most notably Western Kentucky or Wofford.

"(Wife) Sherri finally told me, 'If you want him to go to Tech you better back off," recalled Jeff. "So I did. I quit saying anything."

But one Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, Jackson returned home after being out with friends and stopped by his parents' bedroom.

"He told me, 'Dad, I'm going to Tennessee Tech,'" recalled Jeff. "He said, 'I just think it's the right place for me to go to school.'"

Added Jeff: "I waited until he left the room, then I got pretty emotional."

As one might expect, Jeff has begun to hear from former Tech teammates through social media he hasn't heard from in years. He and Sherri and daughter Olivia are already planning trips to Golden Eagles games this coming fall if the coronavirus will allow it. The only negative thus far has been trying to embrace Tech's purple and gold colors.

"McCallie blue was easy to work with," said Jeff. "Sherri says purple and gold doesn't go with anything."

Jackson didn't choose Tech only because of football, though head coach Dewayne Alexander taking the program from 1-10 his first season to 6-6 the next certainly screams of a program on the rise.

"I want to major in mechanical engineering or industrial engineering," said Jackson. "And Tennessee Tech had the best engineering program of any school I was considering."

However, there could be one potential problem for Jeff somewhere down the line, since Tech assistant coach Bert Browne — who was the starting quarterback for much of Burns' time there — and linebackers coach Bruce Hatfield might both fill in Jackson on just what kind of player his father really was.

"I had three concussions in which I was carried off the field," recalled Jeff. "A knee injury ended my career. And the play I'm probably most remembered for wasn't a positive. We had a quarterback, Thomas DeBow, who'd just set the school record for most passing attempts without an interception. Well, I was sent over the middle to catch a pass between two linebackers against Eastern Kentucky. Thomas threw a perfect strike, right at my face mask. It went through my hands, bounced off the face mask and got intercepted by the safety."

After a long pause, Jeff said, "My worst fear is that he's going to find out that I wasn't that good."

Perhaps, but the fact that Tech pursued Jackson as a preferred walk-on — which means he gets everything a player on scholarship receives except tuition — might also mean that the Golden Eagles coaches figured if he proves to be close to as good a player and teammate as his dad was, he's worth having on the team.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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