Brother Billy Burge – One True Jesus Loving Trojan
Larger than life with a never ending smile and a heart as big as Texas, Brother Billy Burge lived his life as a true Mississippi Delta Community College Trojan. The Baptist preacher never met a stranger and told everybody he ever met about Jesus. Burge was one to pull over when driving through town just to stop and pray with a friend he saw working in his yard. Charismatic as the day is long, full of joy but known to be somewhat of a prankster, there was a lot to Brother Billy Burge in the short 62 years he was around. But man, what an incredible life he packed into those 62 years.
Brother Burge’s life was tragically cut short in an automobile accident this past June but the life he lived continues to touch those he knew and those his friends continue to tell. The Alabama native was a natural athlete and set track and football records as a sprinter and running back. He lost his parents early in life but despite the severe setback, continued to live and impact those around him. He excelled in both baseball and football and those sports would be a bridge that took him from Alabama to Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead.
Burge was on his way to making a name for himself but a knee injury slowed him and when his shot at an Alabama college dried up, he found his way to the Mississippi Delta to become a Trojan but only had a half scholarship. But he managed to take a little and turn it into a lifetime of blessings for himself, his family and every friend he ever had. With his big smile, Burge soon found many friends on both the athletic fields he still competed on and all across campus life at what was then MDJC. Keith Bender was Burge’s roommate their freshman year.
“Billy never had a bad day,” Bender recalled. “He loves people, the Lord and athletics. He wasn’t a great student but he studied. He was always encouraging and a team player trying to get the team to play well.”
It was in his freshman year that Burge became a believer, led to Jesus by another friend Jimmy McClendon. Bender noted that Burge’s fire for Jesus couldn’t be contained and the kicker and catcher’s ministry began in the men’s dorm.
“Brother Billy was preaching and playing athletics. He was really a moving factor on campus. He got other players to go to Bible Study. He tricked me by telling me they had ice cream at the Baptist Student Union,” Bender said.
Bender saw Burge’s fire as a believer and became a close friend.
“He was one of those people that you didn’t want to let down and he didn’t want to let you down,” Bender said. “A lot of people rode a lot of miles for his funeral just because of what he meant to them early in life when we were all college age. When he made the statement, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus. There wasn’t any doubt that’s what he did. And he wanted all of us to follow Jesus. There are a lot of stories about Billy but the story of Billy was his love for Christ. That was his life.”
On the football field, Burge was a placekicker for the late Head Coach Wooky Gray’s Trojans. Bender recalled one game where Burge wasn’t on his game.
“There was one night when he missed three or four field goals,” Bender recalled. “But come to find out, he had been knocked silly in the beginning of the game. He didn’t really know he was missing them.”
One teammate told Bender that “the bad thing about it, Billy was knocked silly but nobody could tell Billy was knocked silly.”
Another MDCC longtime friend, Pastor Jimmy McClendon enjoyed his life-long friendship with Pastor Burge that began in the spring of 1979.
“You always know those guys who when they walk into a room, they change the atmosphere of the room. Billy had a charismatic personality and he certainly brought a lot of joy to people, he laughed and was a prankster. He was always making people feel welcomed. Really a unique guy. You couldn’t be around him and not know he was there,” McClendon said. “We met at a Baptist Student Union function and we really hit it off. We became instant best friends and remained like that for 43 years.”
Burge was known for his pranks and wasn’t shy about it. McClendon remembers, Burge once caught a grass snake on the baseball field and according to McClendon, “had bitten the head of the snake. Whenever he caught one, he’d wrap it on somebody’s windshield wiper but he put it in a handkerchief or some kind of rag so folks didn’t see it. When they tried to pull it off, they’d find that snake. He did that constantly and loved to play pranks and jokes.”
Despite his fun loving, pranking character, Burge took his faith seriously. McClendon noted that Burge was the initial force behind a campus wide revival that began with the football team.
“He felt a real burden for the guys on the football team. He had been sharing the Lord with them and in the fall of ’79 and he told me in the Baptist Student Union that he was going to knock on every door at the dorm and invite them down to the lobby and I’m going to preach.”
McClendon remembered that there we so many people who came forward to follow Jesus, they had to go wake up BSU Director Cornell Daughtry to help them.
“There weren’t many days that went by that somebody didn’t get saved. It was an incredible movement of God during that time. I can remember about 11 people surrendering to the ministry. The Baptist Record wrote a story about what happened at MS Delta.”
Finding Jesus was important to Pastor Burge and serving folks was a huge desire in his heart. McClendon was on the serving end as Burge always carried a roll of paper towels and some Windex in his truck.
“He’d go out in a parking lot of cars and just start cleaning the bugs off of people’s windshields,” he said. “He was a unique guy.”
After two years at MDCC, Burge went onto Athens State University in Alabama and then got his master’s degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He completed his doctoral degree at International Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Florida. He then began his preaching career across Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina and Mississippi. When he pastored close to Moorhead, he asked to be the team’s chaplain – a position he cherished. Former Athletic Director Domino Bellipanni remembered Burge as being quite active on the sidelines. One time he got a bit too close to the action. A play ran wide and into the Trojan bench and Burge got knocked down. Bellipanni, a former trainer as well, went over to check on him.
“He got mixed up in it. He was on the ground face down and I think the officials were calling a hit out of bounds. They threw the flag and there it was on his butt. (Former Head Coach Jeff) Tatum looks down and says, ‘why did Billy get a flag?’”
Bellipanni tended to Burge who started saying “my knee” and then “my shoulder” and then he jumped up and said, “We’ve got to win this ball game.” Coach Tatum thought he heard Burge utter an old Wooky Gray-ism.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with me, baby. It’s a great day to win to be a Trojan. Let’s come back and win this game,” Tatum recalled Burge saying.
The duo travelled to all the away games together and on one late night getting home, Bellipanni asked Burge about his prayer lists and what did he do on these late nights and prayer.
“Billy, when you get ready to get in bed, I know you have a list that you talk to the Head Man about. On these late, late nights like this, do you abbreviate it or pile it all into one? I was picking at him. He looked at me and said, ‘you’re right. I do have lists and I just moved you to another one.’”
Bellipanni described Burge as “a super great guy and one of those the world is going to miss.”
Former Head Coach Jeff Tatum recalled another Burge sideline story. It seems there was a questionable play on the field and Burge was riding the referees and flags were thrown. Tatum looked up and saw the flags and went after the referees to find out what it was all about.
“I told them he’s not one of our coaches,” Coach Tatum said. “He said, ‘well, he’s hollering at me.’ I said, no he’s not, he said he’s praying for you. He’s not getting on you. You can’t penalize a guy for praying for you. That shouldn’t cost me 15, you ought to give me 15 (yards.) Believe it or not, the referee picked up the flag and didn’t penalize me.”
Coach Tatum also explained that Burge never missed a pre-game prayer with him.
“He never prayed to win. He would always say, ‘Dear Lord, give Jeff the wisdom to coach this game and wisdom to lead these kids because they need him.’ He was a great influence to our players.”
Coach Tatum said, “He meant so much to me in my time in the Delta that even though I’m in Kansas, I made sure I was at the funeral. He was that much of a friend and a guy who glorified God.”
Burge’s son, Bryan has followed in his father’s footsteps and is a Baptist preacher as well currently serving in East Tennessee. The son loved the father and the preaching duo owe a special thanks to one of Billy Burge’s coaches – Dean Wright.
“It was an athletic journey that he started out on coming to Moorhead but it turned into a spiritual journey that transformed his life,” Bryan said. “Dean Wright was the first spiritual father and male influencer in my dad’s life. If it wasn’t for Dean Wright and his influence on my dad, we wouldn’t be here talking tonight. Dean Wright loved my dad where he was and was a father figure to him.”
Pastor Billy Burge, a Jesus loving Trojan, gone way too soon.