__Initially, this story said the Warriors won the national championship in 2011, but they were a runner-up. The South End has corrected this mistake.__
Former Wayne State Warrior teammates Troy Burrell and Joe Long may have gone their separate ways following an historic 2011 season, but they both ended up where they wanted to be: in the NFL.
This past April, Burrell, a stand-out wide receiver named first team all-league in both his junior and senior years, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Detroit Lions. He was a member of the practice squad and spent part of the offseason with the team, prior to being released in June, but was resigned in early November.
For Long, despite his outstanding collegiate performance, a private workout with the Lions, and a visit with the Jets, he didn’t have high expectations going into the draft. He was, however, signed as an undrafted free agent by the St. Louis Rams in April. He played with the team through preseason but was cut after the last preseason game versus the Baltimore Ravens.
Returning to Michigan and living in Ann Arbor, he was working as a Costco freezer stocker when he was asked to work out for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was signed to the Steelers practice squad Nov. 28.
Back in Detroit, the Lions were suffering from a flurry of injuries and they were thin at wide receiver. The team had just placed veteran Nate Burleson on injured reserve in October. Most recently, sophomore Lion receiver Titus Young Sr. and second-round draft pick Ryan Broyles were also placed on injured reserve.
Enter Burrell, who was waiting patiently for another opportunity.
“After being released in June, I went back home and continued to work out and stay in shape,” Burrell said. He took a substitute teacher position in his hometown Port Huron School District, which allowed him the freedom to remain NFL-ready. “I didn’t want to get a job where I’d be locked down where, if I did get a call from a NFL team, I wouldn’t be able to take it,” he said.
When he got the second nod, he was prepared. “I was able to continue to stay in shape while doing something I really enjoy, which is being involved with the kids and the community. That was huge,” Burrell said. “It’s just something being able to play at this level now, being able to play the game that I love to play. It’s a blessing.
“I’ve loved football all my life. I played flag football early, in the fourth of fifth grade. I just remember I loved scoring touchdowns. Flag football is all about making people miss and running into the end zone. It was exciting.” Not as exciting as playing for the Lions, I’m sure.
Likewise for Long, the usual Steelers injuries along the offensive line allowed him a second practice squad opportunity in the NFL. First-round pick David DeCastro went down with a knee injury before the season even started, but returned to practice around the time Long was signed by the Steelers. Additionally, starting left tackle Marcus Gilbert went down and is still out, while rookie right tackle Mike Adams was injured two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns.
“After being cut by the Rams, I wondered if my football season was over,” Long said. “I went home and started looking for a job and all of a sudden I got a call from the Steelers and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been kind of a crazy ride.”
Long, who grew up cheering for the Lions at the Silverdome, has an outstanding football pedigree that runs in the family. Though unrelated to former Rams teammate, star defensive end Chris Long, he is a younger brother to University of Michigan graduate Jake Long. Jake, also an offensive tackle, was the first overall pick by the Miami Dolphins in 2008 and is a four-time pro bowl selection.
A starter from day one, Long immediately became an integral part of the offensive line.
“It (Wayne State) was an unbelievable staff and program. They helped me develop and be a good football player. I give those guys a lot of credit for where I’m at today,” Long said.
Named First Team All-League in both 2010 and 2011 and Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2011, he started all games at left tackle, breaking the school record for both career and consecutive starts with 49. He blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher all four seasons, including the Lions’ latest running back sensation Joique Bell, for two of those seasons. Bell rushed for a combined 3,236 yards due in large part to Long’s blocking prowess. Just months before being signed by the Rams, he participated in the East-West Shrine Game.
In his final season in 2011, Long’s domination earned him the coveted Gene Upshaw Award, which is given to the nation’s best Division II lineman on either side of the ball. “That was definitely my biggest accomplishment,” he said.
The 2011 season was a magical one for the Warriors, in which Long and Burrell played a major role in leading the team to a 12-3 record and a national championship runner-up. Their success came from hard work and a great bond. “The chemistry that we had is unmatched by any other class, I feel, that’s ever played at Wayne State,” Burrell said.
Burrell spoke highly of his former Warrior teammate.
“Joe was our iron man. Me and him were the only two players who played every single game from our freshman year to our senior year," he said. "So I call him the iron man because he started all those games; I was just fortunate enough to be able to play in all of them.
“Joe was a great teammate and a leader. He was a captain for two years. He’s a warrior, the epitome of a warrior. I was excited when I heard he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He texted me the other day, seeing how I was doing and stuff. It was good to hear from him.”
Long’s comments echoed a similar story.
“Troy was an awesome teammate. We came in the same year and played all five years together. He was a great player and a really great leader. He and I were close, just like the rest of the class we came in with. I wish him the best, I know he’s going to do well,” he said.
Fellow Warrior alum, Joique Bell, is also doing well in his role with the Detroit Lions. Bell played his first game with the Lions on Sept. 9 after being signed that previous Christmas. Since then, he’s run for nearly 400 yards and three scores.
Burrell’s voice seemed to glow when asked about Bell.
“He’s (Joique) my boy. He was like my big brother at Wayne State, so seeing him in the locker room now… our lockers are right next to each other," he said. "Every day I’m able to talk to him and pick his brain about different things. He’s helped me a lot with the transition from college to professional life.
“A Wayne State guy, having played in Detroit, now for him to be with the Detroit Lions - it’s like coming home.”
“It’s unbelievable being able to look back and say that I got to block for him. It’s very cool to watch him and see him have all that success,” recalled Long.
The season’s end is coming to a close earlier for the Lions than likely that of the Steelers, but both players are taking it all in while they can. “I’m hoping at the end of the season, I get signed whether it’s here or another team,” Long said. “I want to continue to improve on everything like strength and fundamentals. I want to be ready to be on an active roster somewhere next season.”
Burrell shared the same sentiments.
“I’m going to continue to stay in shape and do what I have to do to be ready if I get a call next year to go to a camp. I just want to continue to work hard and get better. I’ve been playing football my whole life and grew up watching the Lions play,” he said. “It’s like a dream come true being able to play for my hometown team. And so I’m just enjoying every moment that I have.”