Mark Richt has a copy of a goal sheet shoved away in his office at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
Courtesy of Arielle Haynes Burnette
Arielle and Chris Burnette (center) are seen gathered with several Georgia football players during the couple's wedding reception in May in Tampa, Fla.
Georgia’s head coach got a hold of it during a home visit with Chris Burnette, who at the time was a senior at Troup County High School in LaGrange.
He has kept it since Burnette began at Georgia in May 2009, ready to pull it out if the offensive lineman ever strayed from that list.
“I never had a chance to do that because he never got off track,” Richt said with a laugh.
Burnette is fuzzy on the details of the list now that he is in the midst of his fifth season at Georgia. A lot has changed since his redshirt season in 2009 — his position coach, the Bulldogs’ win-loss ratio, his personal life. But the steady Burnette stuck to his list, a habit he picked up from his father, Anthony.
“Thankfully, God’s allowed me to achieve a lot of those goals, so I’m glad Coach Richt didn’t have to remind me about it,” Burnette said.
He has started 30 games for Georgia, including all six so far this season. He has endured shoulder surgery and battled knee injuries. He earned his undergraduate degree in finance in December 2012 and is in the first year of his MBA program in finance and risk management.
But Richt didn’t recall any of those achievements. He had a different one in mind from Burnette’s goal sheet.
“One of his goals … was to be a man after God’s own heart,” Richt said. “He was very serious about being a modern day knight kind of guy.”
Burnette, the middle of three children to Anthony and Pam, grew up a military brat. Anthony served in the Army for 13 years and the Burnettes moved more times in Chris’s first 10 years than in his last 12 — Columbus, Ga., New Mexico and Texas. Then there was the stint in Oregon when his father worked for the Wal-Mart distribution center before the Burnettes finally settled in LaGranage.
Burnette, a brainiac who graduated in the top 1 percent of his class in high school with a GPA higher than a 5.0 due to his advanced courses, picked up drawing as a kid. He created comic books and cartoons to pass the time before moving on to painting and T-shirt creations.
The biggest signifier of his artistic side is a piece his parents see every day.
“I actually have a mural in the garage back home with the big Georgia Bulldog and the big G and that kind of stuff,” Burnette said. “It’s really just something that I use just as a stress reliever.”
He has painted portraits for former Georgia teammates and pictures of Elmo for his nephew.
Though his artistic repertoire has provided an outlet throughout his life, it would be a drive a 17-year-old Burnette made of his own volition that would create a new channel for him.
He found himself at church one fall Sunday morning for the first time in his life.
“Never really had any reason to go,” he said. “My mom was a believer. My father wasn’t. It was something that the Lord put on my heart and sure enough [I] came to faith.”
Burnette says he began attending church with a selfish projection on how his life would fall together — attend Georgia, earn All-American honors as a football player, find success in the professional ranks and then the business world. It wasn’t until his fifth or sixth time in the pews when the message of forgiveness reshaped him.
“It really just broke me,” Burnette said. “It really changed my life so fast.”
Burnette, who is as active as he can be with Athens Church and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, carried those lessons to Athens. He withstood some tumultuous times at Georgia, as an underclassman backup and as a starter — 2009’s 8-5 season with Joe Cox under center, 2010’s 6-7 record with Aaron Murray at quarterback (Richt’s only losing season at Georgia) and a rocky 0-2 start in 2011, his first season as a starter.
But he remained grounded throughout, much to the benefit of his teammates.
The losses, the wins, the struggles and the triumphs have been mixed together to paint a bigger picture, a rare understanding for a 22-yard-old, tight end Arthur Lynch said.
“I think for him, he’s kind of come to a place in his life where he’s found peace,” said Lynch, who was a freshman with Burnette in 2009. “I think a lot of people don’t find that peace or don’t understand that peace until later on in life.”
Wide receiver Chris Conley said Burnette is able to carefully balance a vulnerability with his faith and his strength as a reliable teammate and player.
“[He’s] a guy who’s extremely passionate when he’s on the field,” Conley said. “… His worth can’t even be summed up in what he’s done for Georgia football, which he’s done a ton for Georgia football, but it’s so much more.”
Offensive line coach Will Friend, who replaced Stacy Searels in 2011, said Burnette’s war stories of seasons past, goal sheets and priority order earns him quiet notoriety and respect among his teammates.
“If there’s anybody that you want a son to be like, it’s Chris Burnette,” Friend said. “I think his teammates realize that, too, so he’s a great influence for them. He’s going to lead them the right way. You can have different types of leaders, but with him it’s going to be in the right way.”
Burnette had an encounter during his first week in Athens that, little did he know at the time, would change his life.
He had just gotten settled in his dorm with roommates Orson Charles and Aaron Murray when Charles invited a friend he went to high school with in Tampa, Fla.
Enter Arielle Haynes.
The group set out for a trip to the mall and a text-messaging competition ensued between Haynes and Charles.
“Orson and I were messing around with Chris trying to see who was the faster text messager,” said Haynes, a Florida State graduate who was in Athens that weekend to visit Georgia as a possible post-graduate opportunity. “… Chris saved my number and he would always send scriptures out every single night.”
“From that one day, I think we’ve spoken every single day since that,” Burnette said.
That one day was more than four years ago.
“I think the only day that we didn’t text was on our wedding day,” Haynes said.
Haynes became a Burnette during a ceremony in May in Tampa — the wedding party included a handful of Burnette’s teammate — after the two dated for about three years, mostly long distance.
But after the couple’s first date, most everything seemed feasible, even long distance.
“It was a terrible date. He’ll tell you,” Arielle said.
Arielle was in town for a visit over a long weekend about a year after meeting Burnette. She loves Italian food, so he planned a date to Olive Garden.
Wrong move — that is one of her least favorite restaurants.
It was raining, and Charles happened to be eating dinner with a group of friends and provided some awkward intermissions with his attempts to mess with Burnette.
Burnette tried to redeem himself after the meal with a chivalrous attempt — bring the car around so she wouldn’t have to walk in the rain. But instead, he left her waiting in the restaurant for 15 minutes because he couldn’t figure out how to release her car’s parking brake.
“It was the worst first date,” Arielle said. “Those are moments that you never forget. I think it allowed both of us to be ourselves. … We’ve relived that a couple times — go back to Olive Garden still and reminisce about that terrible date.”
He actually redeemed himself with his on-stage, mid-church-service proposal at Athens Church on Sept. 23, 2012. With the help of pastor Sean Seay, who originally thought it was a bad idea, Burnette recorded a video speaking to Arielle before crouching on his right knee to ask the big question.
“Everything just came together,” Burnette said .”I really just wanted to honor Arielle and also just show people that our faith is what our relationship was grounded upon from the beginning.”
That last few months have been an adjustment for the newlyweds. The two cherished the summer before football took over and Burnette began his coursework again.
“It can be stressful at times just because I’m a graduate student in the MBA program, I’m a football player and then I’m husband,” Burnette said. “But being that husband is what comes first.”
Arielle commutes to work two days a week in Marietta and works from home three days a week, but they have a standing date every Thursday. Whether it’s cooking dinner together — Burnette makes mean chili and can work the grill well — renting a moving to watch at home or gathering pumpkins for painting and carving, there is an effort on both sides.
“He has to leave on Friday and not come back until Saturday after the game or late Saturday night,” Arielle said Thursday. “… Thursdays are kind of special days.”
Arielle said despite her husband’s full plate, he has been even more compassionate with her since they married. And when she hears of the compliments said about her husband — like from Conley, Lynch and Friend — she can’t quite articulate her feelings.
“It just says a lot about him as a person not just how he is at home with me or how he is in public but how he is in private,” Arielle said. “It kind of goes to show his consistency across the board.”
The couple’s near future could include packing tape, bubble wrap and moving boxes, especially if Burnette is taken in the 2014 NFL draft, another goal he wants to mark off his sheet. That uncertainty could be cause for unrest. But Arielle isn’t worried — she and Burnette both have faith.
“You’re stable more with your being and who you are and that it wasn’t necessarily based off of circumstance, which has helped him in life and in football,” she said. “Even with our marriage because we don’t know where we’re going to be next year or in the next five years. I think he is very at peace with that.”