Burnam Helped Set Standard

By Keith Taylor
Updated: January 22, 2006

KENTUCKY—Emmett “Buzz” Burnam was all smiles after becoming the first recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award during the Central Bank Classic last weekend at Norton Gymnasium.

Burnam was indeed happy to receive the award, but was even more excited to see his mother Janella Burnam, and longtime friend of the family, Emmett Menifee in the stands.

Even at age 93, Janella Burnam stands behind her family, especially her son. As for Menifee’s connection to the family, Emmett was named after him.

Burnam was thankful both were in the crowd, especially his mother.

“She has always been behind me every step of the way,” Burnam said. “You can never get too big for your parents. There’s nobody like your mother.” Burnam added that Menifee, a longtime Little League baseball and football coach, served as an inspiration.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have done nearly as well as I did,” he said.

Burnam, currently director of African-American Undergraduate Recruitment at the University of Kentucky, stared on the gridiron at George Rogers Clark High School.

Under the guidance of Menifee, along with Lloyd Hodge in high school, Burnam progressed into a solid athlete. By the end of his senior season, Burnam was a wanted recruit, especially at Kentucky.

Although Burnam was the first black athlete to sign a football scholarship at Kentucky, the event almost didn’t happen.

Prior to making his decision, Burnam made sure the death of Greg Paige wasn’t intentional. Paige died while on the practice field.

“Back then, there were a lot of questions whether I should go or not,” he said. “It looked like they were killing black athletes over there. I was assured that it was an accident.” Once he felt good about the situation, Burnam decided to attend Kentucky on a full football scholarship under the leadership of John Ray.

“I was ecstatic to be there,” he said. “I was excited to get a scholarship.” Burnam, a defensive back, finished his career No. 3 on the school’s all-time list for most interceptions.

“I still see my name over there every now and then,” he said with a laugh.

Burnam was a three-year starter for the Wildcats and enjoyed a successful career with the team. Although it’s been more than three decades since he last played, Burnam still follows the progress of the team.

He’s convinced Kentucky can win under Rich Brooks.

“They’re going to win,” he said. “This will be their year. Coach Brooks will have all of his recruits, and I think he’s going to win. I expect them to have a winning season and get to a bowl.” As for the team’s consistent troubles on the gridiron, Burnam said the issue of playing in the Southeastern Conference makes it tough.

“They’re in a tough conference,” he said.

Burnam said the Cats can counter the problem with an “abundance” of athletes.

“Fran Curci had an abundance of athletes,” he said. “You’ve got to have athletes to win. It takes that (to win).” While Burnam helped set the standard for black athletes in the state, he said Texas Western’s feat on the hardwood in 1966, which sparked the motion picture “Glory Road,” helped open the door for black athletes all across the nation.

“It opened the floodgates for black athletes, and it hasn’t been the same since,” he said. “It will never be the same.”