I was in fourth grade when I had my heart broken for the first time.
The little girl I had a crush on returned the very cool, multi-colored watch I had given her as a token of our partnership and left me standing, alone, jilted on the playground.
I’d been dumped.
Believe me, I wish I was writing about basketball right now instead of reliving a brief elementary school courtship. I had this week’s column on the Hoop Hogs sketched out in a rough outline and was ready to start pecking away.
But then the news that we’d seen the last of Treylon Burks in an Arkansas uniform came down on Wednesday afternoon, and my heart unexpectedly fell into my gut — same as it did during the aforementioned recess 30-some years ago — and I knew I was going to have to use words to work through some feelings.
Not that Burks bolting for the NFL was surprising. In fact, the only thing I’m surprised by is that I feel sad about it, because we had time to prepare for this.
For the last three seasons, even as Chad Morris did what few opposing coaches could and kept Burks out of the end zone for a full year, this has been the clear destination.
It’s obvious that Burks is too good to remain with the ranks of amateurs, and though many of us held on to a sliver of foolish hope that loyalty to his home state would bring him back for a farewell campaign, deep down we knew that was wishful thinking.
He has to leave. It’s the smart thing to do. It would’ve been borderline irresponsible for him to stay.
Of course, that knowledge doesn’t make us feel any better in the moment, as the source of so much of our recent Saturday joy departs for the larger world.
And of course, it didn’t stop a small fraction of Arkansas fans, oblivious to their own hypocrisy, from manifesting their pain in the form of derisive comments on the internet, criticizing Burks’ choice to opt out of the Outback Bowl as a selfish decision. It should go without saying that only the most self-centered desires could lead one to ask a young man to risk his future for a bowl game that doesn’t mean what it used to.
But to lash out when hurt is only human, and it’s easier than reckoning with the truth. And the truth is, we want Burks to stay because it’s what’s best for us.
We want more, even though he’s already done enough – given more of himself to the University of Arkansas than most of us ever could, playing through an expanding litany of ailments that would sideline most mortals.
Now, it’s time for him to protect his ability to earn a life-changing amount of money.
(A quick aside: I wish bowl games still held the importance they once did, but they don’t. That is the current reality of college football. I’d argue it’s what the introduction of the College Football Playoff hath wrought, but that’s a topic for a different column.)
Back to Burks: I have no doubt he properly cherished every chance he had to suit up with his teammates and raise the profile of his program. I believe, as he said in his exit statement, that he lost sleep over the decision. But weighed against the risk, the choice really isn’t one at all.
Still, for fans, it stings, and not just because the Hogs’ chances of picking up their ninth win of the season on Jan. 1 took a significant hit with Burks’ departure.
The world is gifted with a vanishingly small number of humans who possess Burks’ gifts. And in the relatively diminutive slice of the earth’s population represented by Arkansans, the number only gets that much smaller.
He’s arguably the best Arkansas-born-and-bred athlete of his generation, the best Razorback football player since Darren McFadden, and as far as I’m concerned, the best receiver the program has ever had. There’s no replacing that, at least not with a single player, no matter how exciting that incoming Oklahoma transfer might be.
But there’s another level of attachment so many Hogs fans feel for Burks that goes beyond the playing field.
He’s not only the best of us; he’s one of us. Those two things are not the same, and the latter might matter just as much as the former.
More to the point, Burks is the specific type of Arkansan that the widest swath of the fanbase can relate to. Unapologetically rural. As country as the day is long, and proud of it. A representative of his hometown and a carrier of its values.
Listen to Burks talk about topics other than football for more than a few minutes and you’re bound to hear references to Jesus, Grandma, hunting and fishing.
He’s the Platonic ideal of Arkansan masculinity, and he’s leaving us behind.
So, it hurts.
There are volumes of clichés and decades worth of sad songs manufactured explicitly to help the ditched come to terms with their small-scale grief.
Unfortunately, there truly aren’t many fish in the sea like Burks, and the hair metal ballads I turned to at 10 years old aren’t going to help this time. (And I’m pretty sure I like Burks more than a couple of my ex-girlfriends, anyway.)
But, I’m not crying because it’s over. I’ve found some solace in his highlight videos, and I’m watching them – smiling because it happened.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.