BILLINGS — The future was bright for Mitchell Burns.
As a sophomore, Burns was one of the strongest runners at Huntley Project High School and a member of the Red Devils’ boys 1,600-meter relay team. Teamed with seniors Austin Hernandez, Chris Hust and Bradley Graves, they won the State B title in 2019 in a school-record time of 3:23.84.
Burns also ran a leg on the Project’s self-proclaimed “Laser Sharks,” the state-winning 400 relay team (junior Asher Croy replaced Hust in that event), which would have set a school record as well, but the 43.17 was deemed to be wind-aided.
Individually, Burns set another school record in the 400-meter run, clocking a 49.95 to finish fourth. All three runners ahead of him were seniors, and college track programs like Colorado State were already inquiring about him.
Yes, the future was bright for Mitchell Burns.
“I felt on top of the world, I had everything going for me,” Burns said. “And then a dark cloud just came and decided to put me in a hole for a little bit.”
It was more than a dark cloud. It was a roiling skyline of gloom and doom. First came one major knee injury. Then a second. Let’s throw in the coronavirus pandemic, too, while we’re at it.
Though he wouldn’t have been able to compete anyway since he was recovering from his second ACL surgery, last spring’s canceled season was a bit of a salve to Burns. As hard as it was doing physical therapy for a second time, it might have been more difficult had he had to watch others post times in his events that he felt he might have been able to top.
The hole first swallowed Burns during the 2019-20 basketball season. During warmups, he landed wrong on his left leg and felt the ‘pop’ that all athletes hear about and dread. His meniscus was torn, as were both the ACL and posterior cruciate ligament. He also bruised his tibia.
Nearly seven and a half months later, he made it back just in time for the 2020 football season. He had been cleared to resume football activities for only about four or five days when his right leg suffered a similar major injury during a scrimmage.
“The first thing that popped in my head when that happened was that I was going to lose everything,” Burns recalled. “I still have a college scholarship coming and everything was going great. It was a pretty painful experience.”
Project track coach Wes Lindeen was filming the football scrimmage that day, and he rushed to the field to console Burns any way he could. While Burns was telling everyone his other knee was blown, Lindeen tried to stay positive.
“You don’t know,” Lindeen kept assuring Burns. “You don’t know.”
But Lindeen knew, too. And with a second surgery coming just 10 months after the first, Lindeen felt for Burns.
“You’ve got a long road ahead of you at that point,” Lindeen said. “I didn’t know if he would stay positive enough to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to work hard and make it back.’ Because I’m thinking to myself, one knee to the next knee, what do you do?”
Well, Burns did what everyone hoped. He stayed positive, got back to work, and here he is. The Red Devils plan to participate in Monday’s meet at Columbus, though Lindeen is being cautious. He probably won’t run Burns, who was feeling some soreness and stiffness after the first few days of practice.
Burns insisted, though, that the experience never got him down. His main concern each time was whether college programs would still be interested. He did his PT work and stayed involved with his teammates, and he was a team manager for the Red Devils’ basketball squad this season.
Having been through the recovery process once, the second was easier, he said. His determination remained unwavering.
“There was nothing that was going to stop me from coming back this year,” Burns said. “Even if I would have torn the same knee twice, there was nothing that could have kept me from getting back on the track.”
Colorado State was one of the programs that stood by him through both injuries. He signed with the Rams in December, though it’s still up in the air on what his status will be. Burns said the Rams still have to figure out how much scholarship money is available, depending on how many athletes who are eligible for another season because of COVID will return.
Regardless of his scholarship status, Burns wants to prove to Colorado State, others and himself that he’ll be as fast as ever on the track, despite the two reconstructed knees.
He was just given clearance to go at 100% last week, and he said early practices have shown that rounding corners and getting out of the starting blocks are the only times that his knees bark at him.
Lindeen said Burns will certainly see setbacks, just like any athlete recovering from injury. But Lindeen also isn’t one to doubt Burns, no matter how high Burns places his own expectations.
“You know he’s not going to back down from a challenge,” Lindeen said. “I don’t think there’s going to be much that stops him from getting out and running, so I know that those goals are definitely obtainable for him.
“I know he has the drive and desire to do that. On my side of it, I’m just trying to put those puzzle pieces together to make us as successful as possible.”
Burns is full of confidence, and his goals show that. First, he wants the Red Devils to repeat their 2019 team championship. As for himself, he said, “I won’t accept anything less than winning the 200 and winning the 400.”
He also believes the state 400 record is in sight for him.
“I’m bound and determined to prove I’m still a factor,” Burns said, “and a leading runner.”
Soon enough, Burns will begin chasing down that once-promising future.