Mizzou Athletics

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The driver of a used, gray Chevy Impala pulled out of the Missouri football facility last week. There was a lot riding on what he would do next. Not at that moment, exactly, but soon. Luther Burden III knew that.

You see, the likes of the game-changing freshman wide receiver, who is already riding with the nickname "LB3", aren't supposed to play for the likes of Mizzou. History tells us that.

The team has lured only four five-star prospects in its history. Recently, it has been a mid-level SEC program that has seen two winning seasons since playing in back-to-back conference championship games in 2013-14.

That was eight years and two coaches ago.

Some things remain the same in a state where again, when there is top national talent, it is usually snatched up by a national power. Just not Burden. Not in December when the nation's No. 1 WR prospect signed with the Tigers, prompting the obvious question: Why?

"Go somewhere where you're needed instead of where you're wanted," Burden told CBS Sports, recalling some far-off recruiting advice from a coterie of family and advisors who assisted him in the process. "I felt Missouri was where they needed me."

That's for sure. What's different is that Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama needed him, too. Really needed him. And those programs aren't used to losing such recruiting battles.

Along with Mizzou, those were the finalists from a list of 50 offers at last count. The 6-foot, 200-pound Burden is not only considered the No. 1 WR in the Class of 2022 but also the No. 3 overall player, according to 247Sports.

Before a defensive back lines up against him, surrounding Burden is a bubble of family, friends, advisors, hopes and expectations that make the receiver -- like it or not -- an inflection point for Missouri football.

"I look at Luther like he's my son," said Demetrious Johnson, a former Missouri defensive back from the early 1980s who has advised Burden in the recruiting process. "I'm going to protect him as much as I can. I don't care who it pisses off."

Burden turned down Bama where Nick Saban collects star receivers like tie clips these days. Position coach Holoman Wiggins worked hard to land the latest prize.

"Alabama is always going to be in the conversation," Burden said. "Nick Saban, he's a great coach."

But there was a feeling that Burden had made the right decision when Lincoln Riley left the Sooners for the West Coast. Georgia WR coach Cortez Hankton, with whom Burden has become close, took the same job with LSU.

"I wanted to be close to my family," Burden said. "I wanted to change the environment here and turn everything around and make us a powerhouse."

Compare Missouri's history of having signed just four five-star prospects with what Texas A&M pulled off in the latest recruiting cycle. The Aggies hauled in an all-time record eight five-star prospects in the Class of 2022.

A bit of Mizzou's five-star history: Defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. was the last five-star signee in 2016. A freshman All-American, Beckner was slowed by injuries and off-field issues. In 2012, Dorial Green-Beckham was, like Burden, added as a game-changing receiver. "DGB" played two seasons before being kicked off the team and transferring to Oklahoma. He never saw the field for the Sooners.

Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson became the 13th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft after playing parts of two seasons for Missouri following a junior-college career. Richardson just completed his ninth year in the NFL.

But back before such things as recruiting ratings, running back Tony VanZant out of suburban St. Louis held the promise of revitalizing Mizzou hopes in the mid-1980s. "TVZ" was largely regarded back then as the best prospect in Missouri history. His career never got off the ground after a knee injury suffered playing basketball.

Meanwhile, The Next One recently pulled out of that parking lot on a high having just gotten his driver's license.

"He was so freaking excited," Johnson said. 

Against that backdrop, Burden steps on the big stage attempting to help Mizzou from mid-SEC status to national relevancy. These are high times for talent in the state. Nineteen of the 39 FBS Class of 2022 prospects in Missouri are off to Power Five programs. Of those 19, Mizzou snagged eight, including three of the top five.

"It's about the number of guys who can compete in our league," Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz said. "[Does the state of Missouri] have enough SEC players? Right now, there are definitely enough SEC or top-15 program-type players. There are 8-10 every year."

Burden is definitely one of them.  

"Usually [the best players here] go to places like Georgia and Alabama," Burden told reporters during December's early signing day at a local Boys & Girls Club that hosted his commitment event. "I just want to start a trend here in St. Louis for the younger people with talent in front of me to start carrying St. Louis and stay home and take our talents to Missouri."

Similar stay-home words have been spoken before by Mizzou recruits. But this time, Burden turned heads by turning down those superpowers. His decision left recruiting gurus with mouths agape.

It left Burden feeling at home. The second-youngest in a family that includes nine other siblings, all girls, can now feel the love nearby every day.

His father, Luther Burden Jr., is a former basketball star at Saint Louis University. Before he has caught a collegiate pass, the kid his family calls "Trey" will be the grand marshal in an upcoming St. Louis May Day parade.

Missouri is two hours west of where Burden III grew up in North St. Louis. The St. Louis metro area has long been a flash point for what the Tigers did and didn't do in recruiting.

"To put it in proper perspective, [the Tigers] don't get these types of players," Johnson said. "They may get one like him every 20 years. Plus, there's a lot riding on him, a lot riding on his success."

Start with Drinkwitz, who has pinned a large part of his success on in-state talent entering his third season. In that sense, the 39-year-old "gets it" when it comes to recruiting -- physically, stylistically and politically.

"He's not that far removed from those young players," Johnson said of Drinkwitz. "He gets it. [Other coaches] are older guys, late 40s, early 50s. At his age, he's been around young African-American players. He knows the jargon. He knows how they roll. He doesn't have the perspective of older white coaches."

Drinkwitz is only 11-12 in his first two seasons but has already beaten Florida and LSU. What followed is a 14th-ranked recruiting class that includes those eight Missourians. Add in two "in-state" Kansas players from just across the border in metro Kansas City, and Drinkwitz is relying on local talent to make a dent in the mighty SEC.

"I can't speak to the past or the what the future is going to hold," Drinkwitz said. "College football right now is a results-based business. Right now, there is definitely enough talent in the state to really rival just about anybody."

Start with what has become the legend of LB3 at the tender age of 18. In a scrimmage as a youth, Burden III scored five touchdowns. "With no blocking," his dad recalled. That's where the nickname "Touchdown Luther" started.

In fifth grade, Burden III dislocated his elbow, got moved from running back to receiver and still thrived.

"I was playing with the arm [dangling]," Burden III said. "I couldn't even stretch it all the way. I didn't even get it treated. I had an elbow pad and just suited up."

As a 14-year-old freshman wideout at Cardinal Ritter College Prep in St. Louis, Burden III scored 15 touchdowns. That's when recruiters started picking up the scent. They were already familiar with the high school for producing Jameson Williams, who would become an All-America selection at Alabama.

In a December 2018 basketball tournament, Burden III took the ball end-to-end to beat CBC with a fadeaway baseline jumper at the buzzer. Earlier that year, he and future North Carolina star guard Caleb Love the only St. Louis players among 87 at a Junior National Olympic Camp in Colorado.

Burden III's performance last September against St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, translates to any recruiting language. Facing a national high school power, he caught 10 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns, adding a 70-yard punt return for a score.

As a senior, he transferred across the Mississippi River to another national power, East St. Louis High. In his one-and-done semester, Burden III helped the Flyers to the state championship game. The move allowed the receiver to graduate early and enroll at Missouri in January.

"That was my decision," Burden Jr. said. "I kept my ear to the ground, and I wondered how these kids graduate early. I did my research and decided to take him out of Cardinal Ritter. I love St. Louis, but it's not the place for a young Black man. There's too much going on.

"I don't know what these kids are drinking or smoking. I didn't want him to experience that. I wanted him to get out of there."

Burden Jr. is well aware of that East St. Louis legacy at Mizzou. Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow and four-time Super Bowl champion Eric Wright are from there. So is Beckner. Current Tigers quarterback Tyler Macon and WR Dominic Lovett are part of the future. East St. Louis product Cuonzo Martin was actively involved in Burden III's recruiting before being fired as Missouri's basketball coach last month.

Burden Jr. remains one of the best basketball players in Saint Louis University history. Former coach Rich Grawer once called him the best mid-range shooter he'd ever seen.

Upon his graduation, Burden Jr. was asked by the Indiana Pacers to go to the CBA, the precursor to today's G League, in hopes his ball handling would improve. Nothing clicked. In 1987, Burden Jr. was arrested for selling two ounces of cocaine to an undercover officer. He was sentenced to four years and served 12 months.

"He made sure I didn't go down that path," Burden III said. "That's my best friend."

Burden Jr. has long been a pillar of his community. For years, he worked two jobs -- one at Walmart from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., the other at a local hospital as a caregiver. Today, five years removed from a diabetic coma, he works one job at a supermarket distribution center.

"He's really competitive," Burden Jr. said of LB3. "I used to make him cry playing basketball. When he got to 15, I started backing him down the lane. We stopped playing when he got to high school. I ain't no dummy. I know when to stop."

Start with Johnson. He is a pillar of the community himself. When it started three decades ago, the Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation hands out 10 turkeys on Thanksgiving. Now, it gives out about 3,000 each year.

The youngest of eight children, Johnson grew up St. Louis' Darst-Webbe housing project. He became a star safety at Mizzou and played five seasons in the NFL. Johnson sees Burden III as a pillar himself.

"One thing about Luther, you're going to get a hell of a work ethic," Johnson said. "I saw one other guy work out like him: Jimmy Giles, the tight end from Tampa Bay. In 7 of 7 drills, he'd run a 5- to 10-yard route and take it for a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He freaked me out, but his work ethic was amazing."

Giles is in the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor as a four-time Pro Bowler.

Pulling out of the parking lot in that gray Impala, Burden III is barely noticeable. The car came as part of his name, image and likeness deal from the used-car inventory of Mercedes-Benz of Columbia. As that family friend and advisor, Johnson insisted that the receiver's transportation not be blinged out.

"They were willing to give him a very nice car, a Mercedes-Benz. I told him we were not going to do that," Johnson said. "We want to keep him very, very nice and humble. That was a decision I made along with the dealership. It's a reflection of who I am. … Make sure you don't get overwhelmed. Be very patient."

Burden III's NIL valuation is 19th nationally among high school prospects at $76,000, according to On3's rankings. His brand, LB3, already has a website featuring apparel. "LB3 is a movement where football meets fashion," the website states.

That does not nearly make him an NIL exception. Logos and apparel are now an accepted (and allowed) part of the process. 

"Being a student-athlete playing college football, that's like a job," Burden III said in reference to student-athlete compensation. "It's definitely a lot of work. You've got to be mentally prepared and physically prepared. It ain't easy. It's definitely like a job."

Those words may burn the ears of NCAA executives in Indianapolis, but NIL is way down the line to becoming a part of the national college landscape. Burden Jr. says his is able to help "big time" with family expenses.

To the point Burden III recently asked if his father was still going to work.

"He wanted to say, 'Why?'" Burden Jr. said.

There we are again with that interrogative that defines the Burden III's Missouri decision.

In the short run, it's not about NIL. Burden III surely would have gotten similar deals had he attended Georgia, Alabama or Oklahoma.

In the long run, the best of part of this recruiting process isn't a car or the hype or the history Burden brings with him to this next chapter in mid-Missouri.

"It's feeling the love from everybody," he said.