By Jonathan Deal
Playing collegiate baseball isn’t easy. Few make it past the high school level, and even fewer can play at an elite D-I conference like the SEC.
A recent Athens High graduate has beat those odds in more ways than one.
Jackson Burgreen didn’t receive a scholarship to play for Auburn. The AHS standout walked on for the Tigers and is thriving in his freshman year on the Plains.
“I wanted to play baseball at Auburn my whole life,” said Burgreen. “They never came and looked at me play in high school, but I went to a few camps down there. I came down for a camp my senior year and they told me I had a walk-on spot if I wanted it. I took it; I wanted a chance to play for Auburn.”
That chance paid off for Jackson. Not only is he playing for the Tigers, but the left-handed Athens product is also leading off and has started every game this season.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Jackson, however. He turned down several other college offers to walk on at Auburn.
“It was a fight every day,” said Jackson. “I had to bring my ‘A’ game to make the team. At first, that was almost enough for me knowing that I was going to be on the team, but my goals are to continue to do what I’m doing and hopefully help our team go to (the College World Series in) Omaha.”
And the Tigers are well on their way with a 12-3 start to the season, their best since 2007. Jackson has been an integral part of the Tigers’ success, hitting .246 with 17 hits this season, good enough for second-most on the team.
“It’s been a whirlwind for him,” said Jackson’s dad, Ricky Burgreen. “You’re proud, no doubt, but it’s a dream come true for him. He’s taken his opportunity. He just wants to play baseball. That’s what he likes to do.”
The path from walking on to leading off for an SEC program began during his senior year at Athens. During his senior year, Burgreen batted .508, drove in 24 RBIs and scored 47 runs on his way to making the Class 5A All-State team. Though excelling at the plate, he wasn’t getting attention from many D-1 programs.
That all changed when he attended a camp at Auburn and was invited to walk-on. A place on the team, however, was still far from locked up. After months of hard work, the moment of truth came just days before the team’s first regular season game against Maine when Jackson found out he made the final cut.
“I called him and asked if he had talked to the coach,” Ricky Burgreen said. “He told me, ‘Today is not the day you want to talk to the coach.’ When he didn’t get called in that day for a meeting (where they were cutting players), he had a pretty good idea he would make the team.”
A few days later, Jackson was in for an even bigger surprise when he found out he would not only be starting, but also leading off in Auburn’s season opener in what would be his first career collegiate at-bat.
“I was surprised,” he said. “When we came back from the Christmas break, I started leading off. After that, I really started doing well. I felt like I was used to the pitching at that point.”
As if playing for his favorite childhood team wasn’t enough, Jackson is coached by Gabe Gross, one of one of his favorite players as a youngster. The former Auburn slugger recently retired from the majors and is now a hitting coach at his Alma Mater.
“I came to a kids camp here when I was nine years old,” Burgreen said about meeting Gross for the first time. “He signed a game ball when I saw him play against the Braves. It’s weird that he’s my coach now.”
After playing a mixture of competitive D-1 teams and smaller schools, Burgreen will get a taste of what SEC play is like when the Tigers host No. 2 Vanderbilt for a three-game series beginning Friday.
“This weekend is what everybody is looking forward to,” he said. “Every weekend leading up to this, we’ve tried not think about it and take it one game at a time. We know this a big game.”