Skip to main content

Honoring Sun Devil Football Legend Leon Burton

Oct 20, 2022

TEMPE, Ariz. -  Leon Burton, a member of the Sun Devil Athletics Hall of Fame and Sun Devil Football Ring of Honor, passed away earlier this month at age 87. 

Originally from Flint, Michigan, Burton came to Tempe to play wingback at Arizona State. He was a standout from 1955-58, one of the most successful eras in program history. During his first three seasons, Sun Devil Football played at Goodwin Stadium under Head Coach Dan Devine. He helped usher in a new era with a move to Sun Devil Stadium midway through the 1958 season. At the time, it was a 30, 450-seat venue in its infancy. Thanks to the impact of individuals like Burton, Sun Devil Stadium is now one of the most iconic venues in all of college football.

The Sun Devils went 34-6-1 over his four seasons, including a 3-1 mark vs Arizona. The highlight came in 1957 when he was a main reason why Arizona State went 10-0 on their way to a Border Conference Championship. The Maroon & Gold would finish that season No. 12 in the AP & Coaches' Poll. 

Burton was a member of the 1958 team, the first year of Head Coach Frank Kush's legendary tenure. In his final year with Arizona State, Burton was an All-Border Conference selection, leading the team in rushing (694 yards), scoring (11 total TD), punt returns, and interceptions. 

What solidified him as a worthy member of the Football Ring of Honor and Sun Devil Hall of Fame was his 1957 season. He ran for 1,126 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 117 carries, averaging over 9.5 yards per touch. This is still the 13th-most rushing yards by a Sun Devil in a single season. He was dangerous in several aspects of the game, scoring a total of 16 touchdowns. Burton led the NCAA in rushing and scoring in 1957, resulting in him being named All-Border Conference. 

One of the most explosive players ever to wear the Maroon & Gold, Burton finished his career with 2,994 rushing yards, the sixth-most in program history. He also finished with the third-most rushing touchdowns, compiling 34 in his career. In total, he had 42 career touchdowns, tied for the second-most all-time. No one has averaged more yards per carry in a game (40.0 in a win vs. Hardin Simmons, 1955) or yards per carry in a season (10.0 in 1955) than Burton. 

The 12 100+ yard rushing games by Burton are still tied for the seventh-most in program history. He turned in one of the most memorable performances in Arizona State history when he ran for 243 yards in a win over Hardin-Simmons on Oct. 10, 1955. In one of his first games in the Maroon & Gold, Burton set what was at the time a school record, a mark that still stands as the third-most rushing yards in a single game by a Sun Devil. The 243 yards remain the most by any freshman. He also had a game against San Diego Navy in 1955 in which he scored five rushing touchdowns (6 total), which was then a school record.

Known for his all-around athleticism, Burton also participated on Arizona State's track & field team. In the 1958 NFL Draft, Burton was selected 87th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 8th Round.  He would go on to for the New York Titans in the AFL, Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, and the Grand Rapids Blazers semi-pro team.  Burton was later inducted into the Greater Flint African American Hall of Fame in his hometown thanks to his outstanding career achievements.

Burton's funeral will take place on Saturday, October 22nd.  It will be held at Palm Northwest Mortuary and Cemetery. More information on his services and how you can support, visit the following link.