It just a day before the slated start of collegiate track and field’s indoor championships when the NCAA announced the cancellation of all end-of-season tournaments March 12.
The COVID-19 outbreak meant Ohio State senior sprinter Asa Burke lost his chance to contend for a national title in the 4×400-meter relay, and his two-time All-American career for the Buckeyes was cut short, barring renewed eligibility for spring sport athletes.
“When everything first happened, it definitely was a wake-up call because it put me in a position where –– if I was to graduate and track was to be done today –– what would you do?” Burke said. “I didn’t have an answer to that, so it definitely was overwhelming. Stressful. I was honestly kind of scared.”
But Burke had already spent much of his time at Ohio State proving that he will be defined by more than just his accolades on the track.
“You can be much more than society makes you out to be, or what other people make you out to be,” Burke said. “It’s possible to find yourself outside of what you do on a day-to-day basis.”
Burke is a product of East High School, located less than 7 miles from Ohio State’s campus in the Columbus City Schools district. Burke said he’s become a role model in the city.
“Not too many people from my high school –– or anyone at all –– have been able to go to Ohio State, especially on an athletic scholarship,” Burke said.
The importance he brings to public schools in the city, and to the community as a whole, does not go unnoticed by those around him.
“I think Asa is a really important figure because he’s grown up in Columbus, like born and raised in Columbus,” teammate and senior sprinter Terry Johnson said. “And now he’s at Ohio State. That says a lot to his faith in himself and how he was brought up.”
Burke is a two-time U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association first team All-American, a part of the Ohio State school record-holding 4×400-meter relay team and a three-time Ohio State Scholar-Athlete.
“Asa has been on some relays that have been to nationals. He’s been on Big Ten championship teams,” Ohio State assistant coach Joel Brown said. “First time the men have won a championship in 25 years.”
Prior to the COVID-19 cancellations, Burke planned to attend the Olympic Trials and run for Jamaica –– where his father was born and raised –– in the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“It’s a way for me to get closer to my dad, and also my family,” Burke said. “I have a lot of Jamaican relatives too. It’s a way for me to get closer to them because I don’t get to interact with them much.”
However, with the 2020 Olympics being postponed until next year, those dreams will have to wait. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, Burke said.
“I do want to run in the Olympics, and it gives me so much more time — a whole entire year — to invest in that,” Burke said. “And also just not to give up on what I planned for myself.”
Burke might also get another shot at the collegiate championships that were cut short this year come 2021, as the NCAA will meet to discuss renewed eligibility for spring sport athletes Monday.
Off the track, Burke is the vice president of Redefining Athletic Standards, a student organization at Ohio State that puts on social events and places an emphasis on professional development and volunteering for black, male student-athletes.
He and Johnson, the RAS president, were two of the original members of the organization that once included former Buckeye football players Austin Mack and Jordan Fuller.
“RAS is essentially a brotherhood for student-athletes to help them have a voice on campus and develop as individuals,” Johnson said. “We try to challenge each other not just as athletes, but as individuals.”
Johnson said Burke handles almost all speaking responsibilities for the organization, and Burke said they wanted the group to give male student-athletes a sense of pride in something other than their sport.
“It helps each athlete that was involved to show that they are well rounded and that they can do more, which is redefining the whole athletic standard,” Burke said.
RAS has held a mental health panel, social justice event with former Ohio State and current New Orleans Saints’ safety Malcolm Jenkins and back-to-school backpack giveaway in Columbus.
“One thing we all realize is outside of sports, we all have a big impact on our communities, just from the type of people we’ve been. We have to be able to use that influence in a positive way,” Johnson said. “Yeah, I am an athlete. I can do that. But I’m also a human being. I can be more than that.”
Brown has recognized that devotion.
“Asa has a high drive, a high passion to be successful, which is a good thing — a thing you look for in athletes. In the future, that’s going to help him be successful as a person,” Brown said. “He shows up every day, and he’s a person that you don’t have to ride him to tell him to do the right thing. He’ll do what you ask him to do. It’s not about what you say all the time. It’s about what you do.”
Beyond his collegiate career, Olympic dreams and success as a Columbus native, Burke wants to lead the way for everyone who comes after him.
“Really, the main impact I want to have on people is to inspire others,” Burke said. “To be an example. To show that you can be anything that you put your mind to.”