Luther Burden III stood alone against the bleachers.
The star senior wide receiver for the East St. Louis football team, Burden’s back was to the assembled mass waiting to beam his decision around the county Tuesday night.
“This has been the hardest decision of my life,” Burden said when he finally sat down at the table at midcourt of the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club gymnasium.
He thanked his coaches, teammates and parents. When the moment arrived to pick one of the three hats that were laid before him, Burden put his hands first on the Georgia cap, then Alabama, before finally picking up the black and gold Missouri cap which he placed on his head and then flashed that megawatt smile.
The Tigers had won his pledge.
“I knew my decision a while ago,” Burden said. “I knew when I left Mizzou last weekend at the game. That’s when I knew.”
A consensus five-star recruit, Burden is rated the nation’s No. 6 overall player in the 2022 class by Rivals.com and 247Sports.com. He can sign his national letter of intent during the three-day early period, starting Dec. 15. When he does, assuming he stays true to Tuesday’s pledge, he’ll become Missouri’s first five-star addition since former coach Gary Pinkel’s era. Defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr., a 2015 recruit from East St. Louis, was rated a five-star prospect by 247Sports. MU has signed only two other consensus five-star recruits over the last 20 years: wide receiver Dorial Green Beckham (Springfield, Missouri) in 2012 and defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson (St. Louis/Gateway Tech) in 2009. (Richardson slipped to a four-star recruit in 2011 after a two-year stay at junior college.)
Burden gives Missouri 15 commitments for the 2022 class and three wide receivers, along with Parkway West’s Ja’Marion Wayne and Mekhi Miller from Blue Valley North in Overland Park, Kansas. Burden is MU’s fourth commitment from the St. Louis area, joining Wayne, SLUH safety Isaac Thompson and St. Charles defensive lineman Marquis Gracial.
Thompson, Gracial and Wayne were in the bleachers at Herbert Hoover to support their future teammate.
“We’re going to be teammates and turn Mizzou around, and I’m just happy,” Burden said.
This talented class will join the most recent group that Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz lured last year that featured De Smet defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo and the dynamic pair of East St. Louis standouts in quarterback Tyler Macon and receiver Dominic Lovett.
Being the next — and biggest — part of the Tigers’ near future played a large role in Burden’s decision.
“(Highly talented players) all go to places like the Georgias, the Alabamas,” Burden said. “I just want to start a trend in St. Louis for the younger people. Start a trend to stay home and take our talents to Missouri.”
Burden said he chose to announce his decision at Herbert Hoover where he played youth football. It’s the field where he earned the nickname “Touchdown Luther.” He wanted his announcement to be a positive for the community and in the place where he grew up.
“I think it’s good for the community for people to come watch where I used to play football at,” Burden said. “Shout out to Herbert Hoover.”
The reigning Post-Dispatch All-Metro offensive player of the year, Burden’s talents have been apparent his entire high school career. He played three seasons at Cardinal Ritter, where in 30 games he caught 124 passes for 2,941 yards and scored 39 total touchdowns. In January he transferred to East St. Louis, where he played in the modified spring season and was equally impressive as he caught 32 passes for 737 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
Through the first eight games of his senior season Burden has built on his résumé as he’s caught 39 passes for 647 yards and 15 touchdowns. Of the 11 punts he has returned this season, five have gone for touchdowns. The Flyers have been the undisputed best team in the area, if not the Midwest.
“You’re not going to get a better ball player than Luther,” East Side coach Darren Sunkett said. “I’m glad he’s staying home, and I think Coach Drink is going to put together something special down there.”
Burden said he intends to graduate early and enroll at Mizzou for the spring semester. He has some unfinished business in high school, though. He was an integral part of Cardinal Ritter’s boys basketball team that won the Class 3 state championship when he was a sophomore in 2020. But a state football championship has eluded him. The closest he came was when Ritter finished as the Class 3 runner-up to Trinity in 2018, his freshman year.
With the pressure of his decision now lifted, Burden said he can focus on football.
“It’s a relief for sure,” Burden said. “Now I can lock in.
Dave Matter of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.