NEWARK, NJ - When Jaheem Burks was shot six times in January, his coach at Malcolm X Shabazz High School didn’t think the teen would live - let alone ever play football again.
“He looked at me with the coldest stare and said, ‘I’m gonna play this year,’” recalled Shabazz High School Bulldogs Coach Darnell Grant, even though he assumed the 18-year-old would need more than a year to recover.
It turns out Burks was right: He returned to school around May this year. Burks had to relearn how to walk, but he’s back on the field playing as quarterback and corner again.
“I’m about 97, 98 percent,” Burks said, adding that weight lifting with his coach and teammates helped him regain his strength.
Since Burks was added back to the Bulldogs' roster for this school year, records show the team has won each of its three games played so far. The team most recently won 40-0 in an away game against Hoboken on Friday night.
Grant said his team prides itself on being able to overcome adversity of any kind. So when he saw an email pop into his inbox about a grant that honors a player for their commitment and teamwork, he thought of Burks.
The coach nominated Burks for a USA Football Heart of a Giant Award that could give the team up to $5,000 worth of equipment. The winner is determined in part by a public voting session and is presented by the New York Giants and the Hospital for Special Surgery, a medical center focused on musculoskeletal health.
The winner will also be honored during a New York Giants home game in December.
“I don't really want people feeling sorry for my kids,” Grant said, later adding, “But Jaheem going through what he went through...I just thought he was the type of kid who deserved this."
Burks said he and a few friends went to a basketball game one night and decided to get pizza afterward, but there was a group of people in a car who were staring at them strangely. Gunfire would come from the group’s direction in a case of what Burks said was mistaken identity. Burks was shot multiple times in the legs.
Grant eventually started working with Burks in the weight room to help him regain his strength to what it once was. While coaching him both before and after the shooting, Grant noticed a change in the high schooler.
“He was as brilliant and fun-loving kid you’ll ever see, but now he’s a little more serious as a kid, I think,” Grant said. “...His focus is a little deeper now.”
Burks’ favorite football player is Antonio Brown, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he started playing the game himself when he was about nine years old. He could speak about his interest in the sport -- no problem -- but became a little less talkative after talking about the shooting.
Still, he said getting nominated by his coach to carry the team to the grant and a chance to be honored by the Giants meant a lot to him. “I felt happy because I’ve been through a lot,” Burks said.
Seeing Burks recover and get back on the field has been an amazing thing to watch for the coach, too.
"It was kind of miraculous to me that he was able to recover."
Six finalists are chosen based on how many votes they receive from the public. A grand prize winner will be selected based on the finalists’ video submission to the grant organizers.
Each finalist will receive $1,500 for their high school's football program, while the winner’s team will get $5,000.
Those interested in casting a vote for Burks and his team should do so online and have until Oct. 7 to do so.