Burkhalter perseveres through tough times

Published 12:02 am Saturday, December 30, 2017

Nicholls State University redshirt freshman left guard P.J. Burkhalter is living proof of what can happen when you believe and you keep working despite major adversity.
Imagine being a football player. You graduated high school a couple months ago and signed a letter of intent to play college football a few months before that. There is plenty of excitement, but the day before fall camp, you are told that you cannot play football because of a health condition.
The doctor has your best interest in mind, but that is a huge disappointment, especially knowing you have worked your tail off for a long time to have his opportunity.
That is what happened to Burkhalter, a 2015 Franklinton High School graduate. He believed he would play football again — and through hard work, he is back on the field. This year, he started all 12 games for the Colonels.
The story begins just after Franklinton’s 2014 spring game in May of that year, when Burkhalter saw his first symptom of a kidney problem.
It was the spring game prior to Burkhalter’s senior season.
“After the spring game, I went to the bathroom and I was urinating blood. You don’t expect that and it kind of scared me, so I went to the doctor,” Burkhalter said. “First, they were saying, it was just blood in my urine. They thought I had just got hit in the back — like a running back had hit me from behind.”
Burkhalter, who has had a medical redshirt and the standard redshirt, went through some more tests.
“First, they found a lump (about the size of a dime) in my kidney. They were talking about it might be cancerous, but it might not, so I got that checked,” Burkhalter said.
The tests revealed that Burkhalter did not have cancer, but instead he has low function in his kidney.
“You have a tube that goes down into it and it like closed up a little bit and that’s what’s causing me to have low function,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter turned to Franklinton baseball coach Jeff Tageant. Tageant had renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) and recovered 10 years ago this coming summer.
Burkhalter and Tageant did not have the exact same affliction, but Burkhalter wanted to know about Tageant’s experiences with a bad kidney.
“I was in the lunchroom and he called me out to talk outside,” Tageant said. “He asked me about my experiences with having a bad kidney. It was surely a scary time for him and his family. I tried to counsel him. I admire his perseverance to continue to get after it after he was shut down and told ‘no’ so many times.”
Tageant attended Nicholls’ game against Southeastern Louisiana University this season and said he was proud to see Burkhalter playing, especially as a starter, after all he had gone through.
“He’s a special young man from a special family. I think a lot of his family,” Tageant said. “After the game, he had his own personal fan club out there and everybody was taking pictures with him.”
The summer going into Burkhalter’s senior year at Franklinton, he could not do any team activities like workouts.
“It hurt me to just sit around and just see my teammates getting better and working and stuff and me just sitting there, so I just tried to help them by talking to them, but I wasn’t the same,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter kept going to the doctor the whole summer.
“Finally, I convinced the doctor to let me play. It was my senior year and I didn’t want to miss it,” he said. “You really don’t see a lot of football players injure their kidney, so he gave me the go. He told me to wear like a quarterback thing around my kidneys, so he let me do that.”
Burkhalter played the whole season and had no problems.
Following the season, he had a few offers to play in college, and chose Nicholls. Burkhalter said he worked out the whole summer of 2015 and had no problems.
“The day before fall camp, the team doctor told me I could never play football again because of my kidney. He was worried about me dehydrating and draining it more. Basically, he didn’t want me to be on dialysis at 21 years old and not be able to live a normal life,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter said he took the bad news as everything happens for a reason and he kept working and working out.
“I just kept believing that I could play football again,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter said he started focusing on nutrition and training to lose weight. Burkhalter lost about 60 pounds and that allowed his kidney not to have to work as hard. He went to Momentum Gym in Thibodaux and began doing CrossFit, starting in the summer of 2016.
“The doctor who didn’t clear me was the same doctor I went to CrossFit with and he saw me progressing and losing weight,” Burkhalter said. “He told me to come see him last spring (2017) and he cleared me to go.”
Burkhalter said the doctor put him on a hydration plan, took his blood pressure everyday and he got blood work once a week for the entire season just to make sure everything was good and it was.
Burkhalter said that once he found out he was back on the field, he was excited.
“I called everybody in my contacts — everybody,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter’s second game was at Texas A&M in front of more than 100,000 people. Nicholls hung in tough, but came up short, 24-14.
“One-hundred ten thousand people. You live to be in that environment,” Burkhalter said. “It was incredible. Going back, my first McNeese game, I did terrible. I was terrible. I got took out and everything, but coming back the next week, I did a lot better. Going into the game, understanding what to do, so the atmosphere didn’t really mess with me mentally. I kind of liked it. It made me like thrive a little bit.”
This season, Burkhalter was part of an offensive line that blocked for seven 100-yard rushing games by four different players. Kyran Irvin was second in the Southland Conference in yards per game. Nicholls was second in the league in rushing, helped by games of 400 yards and 300 yards. The line allowed just 20 sacks, which was fourth fewest in the Southland.
Burkhalter’s story will be told for a long time at Franklinton, especially on the soccer pitch, as Franklinton’s boys’ soccer team is honoring him. This season, the team began giving Burkhalter’s Nicholls No. 79 to the player on the team that best exemplifies hard work, leadership and perseverance through trials. This is the first year the team has done this.
This season, the number was awarded to junior sweeper Jayden Ard, who has been playing soccer since his eighth grade year.
“It meant a lot, knowing they saw me as a leader and everyone sees me as a leader and that they wanted to show that by giving me this number,” Ard said. “Coach Nate said that P.J. was a leader and so it’s nice to know he also thinks of me as a leader and so does the team.”
Ard talked about being a leader.
“You can’t be goofing off and stuff all of the time,” he said. “You’ve got to look good and people are always watching you. You know how you need to act. When things get bad, you still play the same and you stay with that same energy and don’t get down or anything. You always look up and look forward.”
Burkhalter has spoken to the team and said he just wants to be a role model for them to look up to.
“Somebody who has been through a lot of stuff in their life and is coming out on top. Not giving in to the negativity, the obstacles in life. I just want them to see that stuff is going to come up in your life. You just have to keep grinding and you have to have faith,” Burkhalter said.
Franklinton soccer coach Nate Murray talked about Burkhalter and Ard.
“P.J.’s story deserves to be told. Jayden deserves the recognition,” Murray said. “I simply happen to be in a place where I can acknowledge both of these young men through this expression of leadership.
“I was in the middle of all this with P.J. and his lesson of perseverance in the middle of low times can be a lesson to us all. Far greater than their athletic abilities, both of these young men are great humans.”
Burkhalter said he is kind of glad this adversity happened, because he said it helped him mature mentally.
“It made me see things for what it is like anything can be taken away from you,” Burkhalter said. “You’re not invincible. That made me mature and I’m kind of glad it happened. What got me through it was Eric Thomas, a motivational speaker, and Inky Johnson, he does some stuff for E.T. so I listened him everyday. (Franklinton soccer) coach Nate (Murray) used to send me stuff. I used to watch it. That’s what really got me through it. I just kept believing in God and praying it would work out.”
Burkhalter said he is thankful to the entire Nicholls staff, especially head coach Tim Rebowe and offensive line coach Lee Roussel, for not giving up on him.
“Every time they see me, even when I wasn’t playing, they would talk to me to see how I was doing. They made me feel part of the team, even when I wasn’t playing,” Burkhalter said.

Pictured are Franklinton soccer player Jayden Ard (front) and 2015 Franklinton graduate P.J. Burkhalter (back). Franklinton’s soccer team honors Burkhalter by awarding his Nicholls State University football number 79 to a player. This is the first year the team has done this and Ard was awarded the number this season.

P.J. Burkhalter