Allison Dingle came up to Marc Burkom at the recent Maryland-UCLA men's soccer showdown and, as kids will so often do, asked a rather blunt question.
"Can you run?" the 6-year-old asked when looking at the bilateral prosthetic feet that Burkom has below his knees.
Burkom answered quickly.
"Yes, I can," he said.
"Can you run right here?" she asked again.
Burkom replied that it was a bit too crowded for that, but he would run for her soon. That's the type of question the 23-year-old Baltimore County resident has faced throughout his life. Fibular Hemimelia Syndrome, which can lead to the partial or total absence of the fibula - one of two bones between the knee and ankle - caused the amputation of both of Burkom's feet when he was 3 months old. He also was born with only two fingers on his right hand.
A direct approach
However, nothing slowed Burkom in life. He fell in love with soccer, played it and now coaches in several places, including the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County's United Classic II travel team, named the U-10 Blue Lightning.
Burkom said he believes in being very direct with kids about his situation and shows them he can play soccer - which he feels is the best way to get them to understand.
"I tell them that as you can see, my legs don't look the same as yours, but I can do what you do," Burkom said. "If I make a mistake, I just say, 'Oops,' and go back and do it again."
And he can do nearly everything the children can do on the soccer field. He played four years of varsity soccer on teams at Beth Tfiloh School, a private school in Baltimore County, playing nearly every position on the field except sweeper and goalie. Burkom became a starter later in his career.
Burkom took up coaching a few years later. He worked with the Pikesville Rec Soccer program before going back to his alma mater and coaching for a year at the middle school. Burkom now is in his third year as Beth Tfiloh's junior varsity coach with a team that was 3-0 as of Thursday.
"Coaching is what I eventually want to do," Burkom said. "I focus more on coaching technique than tactics with the kids. I try to be as specific as possible."
Burkom is a licensed U.S. Soccer Federation coach and met John Dingle - Allison's dad - in one of the coaching courses he was taking.
Dingle is SAC's assistant director of coaching and was teaching a D License course (the highest you can get at the state level), and Burkom impressed him with his zeal for coaching and learning, Dingle said.
"He was one of the best candidates in the course," Dingle said. "I was impressed with his questions, his demeanor."
Dingle saw Burkom again several months later at another workshop and liked how he worked with children. Dingle then asked if Burkom would coach for him, and he eventually wound up coaching the Blue Lightning.
Burkom was thrilled to coach for SAC because of Howard County's long-standing reputation for good soccer. The Blue Lightning keeps him busy with two practices and at least one game a week - sometimes more if the team plays in a tournament.
The team has a 2-3-1 record through last weekend in the Baltimore Beltway Soccer League.
Eddie Kovar is a member of the Blue Lightning and likes having Burkom as his coach.
"He's really nice, and he's really smart," said the 9-year old, who plays defense and midfield. "He teaches us moves, and he's not too hard [on] us." Eddie also said that the team realizes that Burkom's legs look different; they addressed it right away, and it's not an issue.
"We don't even notice it," Eddie said.
Burkom knows that demonstrating certain technical skills, such as advanced dribbling, is difficult for him. So he works around it. He also uses other strategies. Burkom once coached a group and wore sweat pants throughout the season to deflect questions.
Physical limitations will be the only questions as Burkom pursues his coaching career. He would love to be a college coach at some point, and Dingle wants Burkom to keep pushing.
"If he'd continue to work ... and continue to learn, then he could definitely continue to climb," Dingle said. "I would see personal bias would be the inhibitor he'd have."
Burkom doesn't think about it and keeps on working. He likely will coach the Garrison Forest junior varsity indoor team this winter and will be back with the SAC group next spring. Being with the SAC is where he wants to be right now, he said.
"It's going to increase the quality of my coaching," Burkom said. "Right now, all of the coaching I am doing is to make me a better coach and give the kids a better [teacher]."