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Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
North Carolina's football practice field is right across the street from the Tar Heels' new baseball stadium. It's a particularly convenient set-up for cornerback Kendric Burney, who just can't seem to stay away from the first sport to steal his heart.
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|Choosing football over baseball has paid off for North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney.|
Football, though, is the sport Burney has chosen to focus on this year, and it's paid off for both him and the UNC defense. The former outfielder/pitcher is poised to have a breakout season this fall, and a lot of that has to do with the fact it was the first spring that he hasn't been distracted by any responsibilities with baseball.
"I've turned around a whole 360, as far as going to the weight room, to just playing, everything was a lot easier," he said. "As much as I hate to say it, because I let baseball go, it worked out for the best. It definitely paid off 100 percent."
Around this time a year ago, following spring football practices of his redshirt sophomore year, Burney sat down with his father, Tyrone, and made the decision to give up playing baseball. He had experienced the College World Series, but started to become overwhelmed with the demands of classes and both sports -- especially with the arrival of Butch Davis and the staff change in 2007.
"It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life, to tell you the truth, to drop baseball," Burney said. "I've been playing that longer than I've been playing any other sport. My dad's still hurting from it. He played baseball as well, but because of me, him and my mom didn't go to college.
"They won't ever say it, but I know deep down inside, whenever I do something good, I think they're more happy about it than I am. It's really the reason why I do a lot of the stuff I do, because of them."
Burney started every game last year, and ranked third on the team with 78 tackles. He also had 7.5 tackles for losses, three interceptions for 71 yards and five pass breakups. Not bad for 5-foot-9.
"Our coaches joke with me about it," Burney said. "People, when I meet them, they say, 'Wow, you're a lot shorter than I thought.' I just laugh about it. I can jump a little bit. Just a little bit. I just play with a big heart. That's 99 percent of the game. If you just play with your heart, no matter what your size is, you'll achieve your goal. I had a couple receivers say 'you're too small for me.' When they say that, I don't mind getting physical. I guess I earned my respect. I love it when they pick on me, but I definitely get that a lot."
Burney was recruited to play both sports (although he said that the UNC coaches didn't realize they were both recruiting him until they showed up at the same baseball game). Former coach John Bunting was fired, though, after Burney's freshman year, and Butch Davis arrived that spring. It was an extremely important spring for Burney to impress the new staff, and he did that -- but he also neglected baseball in the process.
Again, it paid off.
Burney started all 12 games in Davis' first season, and finished with 50 tackles, 4.5 tackles for losses, one sack, one interception and four pass breakups. He returned that interception 76 yards for a touchdown against rival NC State.
The more he succeeded in football and the less baseball he played, the clearer his decision became. Not that he's forgotten why he came to UNC.
On Monday morning, Burney was at the baseball field again, catching up with his old teammates. He said he goes over there about four days a week. Sometimes he'll even take a few cuts.
"I hang out with the baseball boys a lot more than probably a lot of people think I do," he said. "They still welcome me over there as if I'm still playing.
"They know how hard it was for me to let it go, because I broke down about it. It was tough, but they welcome me with open arms. I even go to away games sometimes. It's nice to be able to still go over there and act like I'm a part of the team."
Especially considering right across Ridge Road, he is a part of the team -- and a valuable one at that.