*EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an extended version of the article which ran in print.
The tackles are as identifiable as the player who makes them. No one hits like Ben Burr-Kirven.
A ballcarrier may be in full stride, exploding into the hole until his momentum is halted and thrown backward by the Sacred Heart Prep senior inside linebacker.
Gator defenders are taught to tackle the same way. They wrap up ballcarriers and hold their heads high in textbook fashion while making hits. But Burr-Kirven accelerates through the runner, transferring the force of a ballcarrier’s forward motion into something much stronger ““ the force of will.
“In all my years of football,” said SHP coach Pete Lavorato, a 10-year Canadian Football League defensive back, CFL assistant, and 20-year high school coaching vet, “I’ve only seen a few guys do what Ben does.”
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Atherton’s Sacred Heart Prep is a former women’s boarding school with so few students (603) that it ranks 95th out of 125 in the Central Coast Section in enrollment. Only four schools in the section have smaller enrollments and play 11-man football.
In school history there are a few dates to remember:
1898: The school was founded.
1984: Boys were first admitted.
1998: First football season.
2014: Football team won Central Coast Section Open Division title.
Burr-Kirven was vital in delivering Item No. 4. The 6-foot, 205-pound linebacker, who is headed to University of Washington, led the Gators to a 13-0 record that included unprecedented playoff victories over Oak Grove-San Jose, Los Gatos, and Bellarmine-San Jose ““ schools that define traditional football dominance in the South Bay.
Under Lavorato, the drama teacher and football coach since 2003, the Gators steadily rose from contesting with Berean Christian and California School for the Deaf for league titles, to winning three CCS Division IV (small-school) championships from 2010-13 and an Open Division crown ““ the ultimate achievement in CCS football — all at a school with only 150 male upperclassmen.
“When we came to this school, I don’t think anyone would have expected that we’d be playing for a CCS Open Division championship, let alone winning one,” Burr-Kirven said.
After missing the first five games with a partially torn Achilles tendon that required a platelet-rich plasma injection, Burr-Kirven returned for the Oct. 17 Peninsula Athletic League showdown against Terra Nova-Pacifica, a team the Gators never had beaten. Burr-Kirven ran for 143 yards on four carries, scored four touchdowns, and had 12 tackles and two sacks in a 49-28 road victory that effectively ended the Tigers’ streak of five consecutive Bay Division titles.
“There was never any doubt I would come back for the Terra Nova game,” Burr-Kirven said. “No matter what, I had to play in that game.”
Burr-Kirven totaled 116 tackles during the season, carried 106 times for 862 yards in a part-time offensive role, and scored 19 touchdowns. In the 14-0 Open Division championship victory over Bellarmine, he ran for both scores and had 11 tackles as the Gators pulled off the impossible.
“One of the biggest things for us is how Ben influenced the whole team,” Lavorato said. “His confidence, how he practices, how hard he works, his great attitude “¦ he really raises the bar for everybody. I don’t want to diminish how wonderful all the guys played this year, but did Ben help everybody else get better? Absolutely.”
SportStars recognizes Burr-Kirven as the Northern California Defensive Player of the Year. He has received plenty of other accolades as well. Among them: Cal-Hi Sports State Small Schools Player of the Year, Maxpreps.com first-team Small Schools All-America, San Jose Mercury News area Player of the Year, and he was among seven finalists for California’s Mr. Football.
“As much as I’ve learned in how to be a good football player, I’ve learned so much more about what it means to be a man,” Burr-Kirven said. “That’s the biggest takeaway. At Sacred Heart you’re taught that, yes, you’re a football player, but you’re a student first. We’ve been taught to be humble before anything else.
“On a Friday night, we had a game against Menlo-Atherton. On Saturday morning, we were here for a daylong camp for special-ed kids, playing football with them. That, right there, says it all about the program.
“Coach Lav, at the end-of-the-year banquet, he didn’t talk about the season. He talked about that day. That’s what it means to be a Sacred Heart Prep Gator. We’re playing sports, but there’s a lot more to life than sports. Playing football here teaches you so much about that.”
Still, the football wasn’t bad either, and Burr-Kirven simply was the best. He sought to demoralize his opponent, to cause them to reconsider heading back into the line with the same intensity with each succeeding carry.
“I’ve learned that the best way to beat your opponent is to wear them down mentally and physically,” Burr-Kirven said. “You want, at the end of the game, when you see the guys coming in for the handshake line, they’re beat up, they’re bloody, they’re wincing, they’re walking funny. That’s what you want. That’s how I’ve always played the game.
“I’d rather be tough and physical than finesse. I’m not going to be grabbing ankles. I’m going to hit you as hard as I can, and you hit me as hard as you can and we’ll see who wins.”
This season, the team that hit harder was Sacred Heart Prep. Every time.
“” David Kiefer