If there are two words that describe the 2017 UCF football team, those two words come to the forefront all the time. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander mentioned it in Saturday’s press conference leading up to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl game at 12:30 p.m. Monday against Auburn, stating that credit for the team’s turnaround from 0-12 in 2015 to 12-0 in 2017 was largely about relationships.
“(The team) needed a little love from the coaches to the players, from the players to the players, from the players to the coaches,” Chinander said. “And it didn’t take long.”
Chinander needn’t look any further than the middle of his defense for the proof of that familial love. Senior inside linebacker Chequan Burkett has felt that family bond — that love — in a couple different ways over the last year.
After graduating and with a young family back home, Burkett made what head coach Scott Frost called a “grown man decision.” Burkett was injured after the 2016 season. He had a young family at home. So, he decided to retire from football, begin a career and work to support and raise his family.
But he missed his other family – his team. He missed his other love – football.
“During my time away from football, me and my wife had a discussion that you have this skill, you have this talent,” Burkett said. “Just make the best of it. I had one more year, one more season of eligibility. We had a long talk. It was hard for her to see my go away for another six months. It’s hard for any long-distance relationship, plus having kids involved made it even tougher.
“That drove me for this entire season to play my hardest each and every game,” Burkett added. “I definitely had a reason, a why I was playing football. My family was my why.”
Once he got back to UCF, re-enrolled and rejoined his football family, it wasn’t long before his actual family needed him. During preseason camp, Burkett’s wife Megan was pregnant with their second child. In mid-August, Burkett he found out his son Khyro was on his way into the world.
Burkett already knew it was unlikely he’d make it back to Alabama for the birth. Burkett saw Khyro’s birth through FaceTime, but his coaches and teammates made sure he knew he wouldn’t be missed for a few days during camp. It was his football family that encouraged him to go be with his now-growing family.
“I really didn’t have it in my mind that I would make it home to be able to see my son born or the days after,” Burkett said. “But the coaches came to me and offered … well, they didn’t offer … they told me to go home. ‘You need to be there.’ They got me on a flight home right away. I surprised (Megan). I didn’t tell her I was coming. Once she saw my face, she almost lost her mind. It was a wonderful day.”
Burkett said that example of the coaches and his teammates caring so much about him is a feeling he’ll never forget.
“To see the coaches and players all behind me, pushing me to go home … It just shows the family this program was built on and how much players and coaches care about each other outside of football,” Burkett said. “We have the regular meetings and practice … but outside of football, everybody wants to know your problem and find a way that they can help steer you in the right direction. The coaches behind me … the players telling me go get your plane ticket home … really shows they really care for me, not just for the skills or what I bring to the team on the football field, but outside of football. They know I have a family and they really cared about that.”