Ron Burton was nothing.
No, literally. His nickname was “Nothing.” Early in his high school career in Springfield, Ohio, peers used the derogatory name to convey what they thought of him and thought he’d turn out to be.
Back in the 1950s, Burton was a backup for his high school football team, who almost never saw the field before finally getting his chance after several of his teammates were injured.
His coach reminded him after the game that he wasn’t very fast or talented. But he could see the determination in Burton’s eyes.
“If you really want to get better, you have to wake up every day at 4:30 a.m. and run seven-and-a-half miles,” his coach said.
And that’s exactly what Ron Burton did every single day for 12 straight years.
Ron’s son Steve, a Wildcat quarterback from 1982-84, instilled a slightly less drastic approach. He merely had his family rise at 5:00 a.m. every morning and head to the gym. His three daughters, Kendall, Kayla and Veronica, would train for basketball and his son Austin for football.
Kendall and Kayla are seven and five years older than Veronica, respectively. When the family workouts started, there was no expectation for three-year-old Veronica to truly participate. She was more or less dragged along as the 5:00 a.m. babysitter has always been a rare commodity. But she didn’t want to sit on the sidelines.
“She would dribble up and down the court with two balls pretty easily,” her mom Ginni said, a former All-American swimmer at Northwestern and participant in the 1984 Olympic Trials. You might know her as Ginni Vath. “I didn’t videotape it because it seemed pretty normal, but I know now that it’s not. It’s pretty special.”
Just a couple months later Veronica demanded to have the training wheels removed from her bicycle in order to prove that she could ride just as well as her older siblings. Despite her parents’ worry, she was riding a two-wheeler in no time.
“She watched everything they did, learned from it and picked up everything she needed to know,” her mother said.
The Burton family is as close to Northwestern royalty as it gets. Ron played running back for the school from 1957-59, earned All-America honors as a senior and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Following his graduation, he was selected in three different professional football leagues. Ron was the first-ever pick by the AFL’s Boston Patriots, for six years suited up for the Pats and eventually produced four sons that would also don the purple and the white, and a daughter who attended NU as well.
While only one of Ginni and Steve’s four children attended NU, all of them excelled athletically. Kendall played basketball at Villanova, while Kayla competed at Lehigh and after a few years playing quarterback at UCLA, Austin just transferred to Purdue. Veronica, of course, just starred on the best basketball team in Northwestern history and still has two more years to add to her legacy.
At first glance, the story of this family looks like one of gifted athletes who have achieved incredible success. While that’s true, the real story is far more than that. It’s about incredible devotion. About having a goal and committing to it. It’s about turning “Nothing” into something.
Ron Sr. developed into an incredible athlete by his senior year of high school in 1956, receiving 47 scholarship offers. Everyone knew that he was going to Ohio State. Why else would Buckeyes Head Coach Woody Hayes send a limo to drive him to Columbus every other weekend for two straight years? Burton was set on being a Buckeye, but his high school track coach insisted he meet with a personal friend who had just landed the head coaching gig at another midwest school. Reluctantly, Burton decided to go out of respect for his coach to hear Ara Parseghian sell him on Northwestern.
When Burton first met the man who was recruiting him to NU, Parseghian stared him dead in the eye and simply muttered six incredible words.
“I want to beat Woody Hayes.”
“What?” the bewildered Burton said, shocked by this bold proclamation from a man who had not yet been a head coach in a Division I college football game. But Parseghian persisted.
“I want to beat Ohio State. I need you and a couple of other guys around the nation. We’re going to put Northwestern on the map.”
Right then and there, Burton knew he was going to be a Wildcat.
The first time Parseghian and Burton took on Hayes’ Buckeyes together in 1957, Ohio State rolled 47-6.
“That was Woody teaching them a lesson,” Steve said, recounting his father’s story. “Right after that game, [Ron] decided that he was never going to let Woody Hayes do that to him again. He was going to do everything in his power to beat Woody the next time they met.”
Ohio State came to Evanston for homecoming the next year as the fifth-ranked team in the country, only for the Wildcats to dismantle them 21-0.
“My dad would tell me that they knew everything Ohio State was going to do that day,” Steve said. “They knew all the OSU plays, how OSU would react when things went wrong. They knew they were going to beat them.”
Ron Sr. had many goals in life. Simply setting those goals is a major reason why he achieved them.
“We learned this saying from him growing up,” Steve said. “Always have a goal, because he or she who aims for nothing, will hit nothing every time.”
Generations removed, Veronica uses this lesson in her own life. Both her sisters played less in college than they wanted to, and seeing that drove Veronica to try and prevent it from happening to her.
“I didn’t want to experience that disappointment in college,” Veronica said. “It motivated me to elevate my game and ensure I got the opportunity to play”
During her freshman year at NU, Veronica wasn’t particularly adept at using her off-hand. She’d finish layups with the inside right hand on the left side of the basket, and was getting scouted by opponents to be forced to that left side.
Every time she would do it, teammate Jordan Hamilton would yell “Right hand! Right hand!” to remind her to use her left.
So Veronica went to work over the summer. Not only did she improve on finishing with her left hand, but she made it her signature move, constantly going up with the ball in her off-hand, Statue-of-Liberty-style, to finish in and around traffic.
This goal-setting doctrine passed down from Ron Burton is hardly exclusive to athletics. Kayla recalls a time when Kendall was furious with her father and and sick of all the early morning workouts. She said she hated basketball and wanted to quit.
“Kendall, I don’t care if you play basketball,” Kendall remembers Steve saying. “I don’t care if you want to play the trumpet. I don’t care if you want to paint, but best believe your behind is going to get up at five in the morning and work at whatever it is you want to do.”
Kendall, of course, chose to continue working at basketball and was rewarded for her efforts. Steve has enjoyed a 25-plus-year career as sports anchor for the WBZ, the CBS television affiliate in Boston, developing personal relationships with New England sports legends like Tom Brady and Paul Pierce, or ending up on World Star for on-screen alligator antics.
The family receives alligator-themed mail to this day.
Steve still wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to practice live TV shots in the morning, sometimes with Kayla, who works as a reporter for Western Mass News and an analyst for Yale women’s basketball.
Ron displayed his work ethic away from the field through the formation of the Ron Burton Training Village, a year-long program to serve kids and instill in them four key values: love, peace, patience and humility. Following the passing of his mother when he was 12 years old, Ron lived in poverty with his grandmother. He decided when he had the opportunity, he would give back to all kids that come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds like him.
Northwestern played a significant role in influencing Ron off the field. The Village is adorned in purple and white, and Steve believes attending a demanding school like NU has motivated many to work harder in all areas of life.
“Northwestern brings a class to people,” he said. “When you’re around sharp kids, kids that are on a mission to accomplish their own goals, Northwestern raises your level of expectations.”
NU is not considered a sports school. That’s part of why it has meant so much to the Burton family. None of them ever wanted to be relegated as an athlete. In fact, the lack of privilege for athletes is one of the very reasons Veronica said she chose to come to Evanston.
It was late in her junior year of high school when Veronica had her first recruiting visit in Evanston. Oddly enough, the Burtons even had trouble getting into the athletic buildings.
“Veronica didn’t want the Red Sea to be parted for her,” Ginni said. “And the fact that we couldn’t even get into the athletic facilities, I just knew that this was perfect for her. Veronica wanted that balance.”
“It’s hard to go to Northwestern,” Veronica said. “You have to have a different mindset, but it forces you to develop good time management skills. Growing up with that mindset to take academics and other things like that just as seriously as athletics shaped who I am. Going to Northwestern has helped me be more than just an athlete.”
The Burtons don’t define themselves by their accomplishments but by their faith in God, something that has been passed all the way down from Ron’s grandmother, who was a gospel preacher. For Veronica, it reminds her that basketball doesn’t define who she is, and that she can play free from the pressure that ideology entails.
“The most important thing to me is playing to glorify God, and playing with that mindset allows me to realize that this is just a basketball game,” said Veronica. “At the end of the day, basketball is something I do, but it’s not who I am.”
Much of how Veronica is as a player also comes from her relationship with her brother Austin as well. The two are close in age, so no matter the sport or activity, they almost always competed together — even when it led to a broken arm.
“It was a neighborhood game of tackle football, and some of my friends were like ‘I don’t know, I don’t think we should tackle her,’ but I just decked her straight away,” Austin said. “She actually bounced right back up, no crying or anything, and kept playing, but three days later her arm was still hurting so she told my parents. She was one tough kid.”
Veronica says he’ll tell her his straightforward assessment of her play and attributes their close relationship to this honesty.
Despite all being fierce competitors on the field or court, the Burtons have each other’s backs. Whether it’s working out together or Austin’s rebounding for Veronica during 6:00 a.m. quarantine shoot arounds, they use the time to bond and make each other better.
The Burton never kept track of stats or win-loss records — even milestones such as the 1,000-point threshold. Yet, Ginni was undeniably pleased to learn that the Burton men have compiled a 65-118-2 record during their collegiate careers, a resume that pales in comparison to the women’s whopping 206-126, which doesn’t even include Ginni’s historic accomplishments as a collegiate swimmer.
Ron Burton’s final story could have just been about an incredible competitor who sacrificed his time and comfort in order to achieve fame, fortune and success. Instead, he preached the importance of being kind to his sons and daughters — that showing respect to people is what gave him success.
“He’d say, ‘You have to be good to everybody. All those little things add up,’” Steve said.
Ron’s beliefs have been passed on to the rest of the Burton family and are evident in how they treat Veronica. Whether it’s Austin’s considering her a “younger brother,” Kendall and Kayla including her in their shooting competitions despite the age gap, Ginni changing her job from a psychotherapist to a water-running instructor in order to schedule around her children’s games or Steve helping all his daughters become better basketball players even though, “his shot form doesn’t even make sense,” according to Kayla, Veronica has been made into a better athlete and a better person by her family.
Ron passed away when Veronica was only three years old, so she never got to develop much of a personal relationship with him. Of course, he still impacted her life a great deal. Those 5:00 a.m. workouts were a tribute to his legendary determination, and if not for her grandfather making a last-second decision to visit Northwestern out of respect for a track-and-field coach, she probably wouldn’t be where she is now.
Veronica was inspired by her grandfather’s amazing journey from “Nothing” to something, but values most how he dedicated himself just as much to helping people off the field.
“He accomplished so much at Northwestern, but he left more of an impact based on who he was as a person rather than who he was an athlete. It was more important to them just how good of a man he was.”