It’s sign-up day for Pop Warner Football at the back of a local barbecue restaurant in the San Antonio suburb of Bulverde. George “Bubba” Burns — an Alamo City lawyer and former college football player best known to his charges here as “Coach Bubba” — is making sure that one of his young athletes remembers his lessons from last season.
“What do you do with your arms when you run?” Burns asks 9-year-old Tyler Coiner.
“You pump them like this,” young Coiner responds, simulating the proper running technique by forming a fist and keeping his elbows close to his side.
“And what do you never do?” the coach asks.
“Go like this,” the boy replies, flailing his arms about.
“And why not?” Burns asks.
“Because,” Coiner recites, as if in Catechism class, “wherever your arms go, that’s where your legs go.”
Burns pats the boy on the back while Robert Coiner, Tyler’s father, remarks about Coach Bubba: “His knowledge of football is tremendous. But most of all I’ve been impressed with his knowledge of kids. But he doesn’t just bring the kids athletic knowledge. He also talks to the kids a lot about school and respecting their parents.”
It’s a sentiment that is frequently expressed about Burns, a seemingly selfless defense lawyer who, despite obligations of his legal practice and family and a troublesome back injury, “never misses a practice” in Robert Coiner’s words, at the Pop Warner League team. But Coach Burns doesn’t end his athletic training with the Pop Warner League. In addition, he throws open his state-of-the-art gymnasium to anyone who wants to use it, operates a summer training camp on the grounds of his mini-ranch for boys of all ages, and even provides athletic conditioning to top college and professional athletes from around the country.
Burns, a San Antonio athlete-turned litigator, is a man with a huge fan base that includes, not surprisingly, hundreds of young boys and men who have benefited from his football training. More surprising, however, it even includes some of his fiercest courtroom adversaries.
“He’s an amazing guy,” says Guy Choate, a partner at Webb, Stokes & Sparks in San Angelo, who is the current president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. “He’s always a straight-shooter, and gets to the heart of a case and to the real issues quicker than just about any lawyer I know.”
Adds Max Parker, a law partner of Choate: “He’s a gladiator. When Bubba’s on the other side, I know I’m in for a battle. He’ll be prepared and he’s a man of integrity. The jury will listen to someone like that. He’s very persuasive.”
A partner at Thornton, Biechlin, Segrato, Reynolds & Guerra in Alamo City, Burns defends mostly insurance companies, trucking companies and construction firms in cases involving personal injury and property damage. Standing a broad-shouldered, 6 foot 6 inches tall, weighing roughly 300 pounds and possessor of a booming baritone voice, the one-time football standout at Texas Tech University cuts an intimidating figure both in and out of the courthouse. “The first time I saw him, it took my breath away,” remarks Choate.
But it is his community involvement as a coach and physical fitness trainer, his deep and contagious religious faith — Burns signs off his voice-mail message and most telephone conversations with a heartfelt “God bless you” — and his warm and jovial demeanor that have won the selfless, gentle giant a wide following among colleagues and community alike.
“That’s sincere; it’s not a façade,” says Joe Brown, a Texas district judge and former law partner, referring to Burns’ salutations and benedictions. “He’s as honest as can be.”
Indeed, to spend a day with Bubba Burns is to learn a lesson in gratitude. Among the things that he thanks God for is the fact that, unlike so many talented high school and college athletes, he was able to move beyond the gridiron, basketball courts and diamonds of his youth. Yet, in the practice of the law, Burns asserts, he has found a career where his competitive instincts are regularly employed and challenged. “I knew my body wouldn’t always jump as high or run as fast,” he says, noting that a bad back has slowed down his workout regimen of late.
His skills in the courtroom have made Burns prosperous and provided him with a comfortable life. He lives in a fine big house with vaulted ceilings, expensive furnishings and fine artwork in the semi-rural town of Bulverde, located on the northern exurban outskirts of San Antonio. He tours around town in a big Cadillac sport utility vehicle.
And Burns even enjoys a soupçon of celebrity. At the gymnasium adjacent to his residence — expertly outfitted with an impressive array of barbells, weights, benches, pulleys and full-body-workout machines — autographed photographs and signed articles from top athletes adorn the walls. “Bubba: thank you for your kindness,” inscribes ultra-marathoner Amanda McIntosh; Cincinnati Reds’ catcher Jason LaRue pens, “Thank you … you’ve been the best friend in the world.”
“They hear about me through word of mouth,” Burns says of the world-class sports figures who turn up at his door looking for training help and advice. “I don’t advertise.”
Married to a pretty wife and father to a handsome, college-bound teenaged son (himself an all-around athlete) as well as two young children, Burns at 49 looks for all the world like a man who is living life at its inflection point.
Even so, his life has not been the seamlessly happy existence that, at first glance, it might appear.
His first wife died of breast cancer a decade ago. And that season in purgatory further confirmed a rueful lesson that, Burns says, he learned more than 30 years ago. Back then, as a strapping youth growing up in the small, east-central Texas town of Smithville, a routine brawl got out of hand with consequences that could have been lethal. “We settled a lot of dealings with our fists” in those days, he admits. “And, big as I was, I never lost a fight — until a guy pulled a knife.”
The lesson? “Bad things can happen to you,” he says, “and people don’t always fight fair.”
Today, he tries to impart many of those hard-won lessons to the young charges whom he trains at “Bubba Camp,” a summer conditioning and skills program that he conducts several evenings a week for some 160 aspiring athletes of all ages. And life’s lessons are part of the curriculum, too, for the boys who play in the local Pop Warner League football team that he coaches. Actually there are two teams: so popular was “Coach Bubba” last year that it necessitated forming two squads.
“He’s very good with the kids,” says Diane Ammann, parent of a boy who played center on Burns’ Pop Warner team. She says her 9-year-old “loves Bubba,” and that he has encouraged her son to be persistent and not give up.
And she’s not just talking about football. Bubba impresses upon young people the importance of education and learning, the fact that improving one’s mind is as crucial to a person’s development as doing bench presses or running wind-sprints. Burns is an avid reader — his study is crammed with legal tomes and he devours law and medical journals, autobiographies of top trial attorneys, self-help books and the Bible — and he often raises the issue with the kids as they’re leaving the gymnasium: “Did you read as much as you worked out today?” he asks them.
And, for emphasis, he is wont to add: “You’re in this gym today because I was an exceptional student. I never made a dime playing football. And not a single one of you is likely to play in the National Football League, either.”
A solid if not spectacular student in high school who concentrated on sports — “no cheerleader ever hugged me for getting an A on a test but they sure did when I scored a touchdown,” he says — Burns nonetheless was attracted early on to a law career. He says he was fascinated with courtroom dramas, playing the lead juror in Twelve Angry Men in a sixth-grade production and religiously watching the old television show Perry Mason. By the time he reached college there was never any doubt: as an undergraduate, he majored in prelaw studies.
In conversation, he slips easily into sports metaphors when discussing courtroom litigation. Sometimes, it’s not clear whether he’s speaking about football or a legal fray. “A lot of lawyers play not to lose, rather than to win,” he says. “But you can’t do that. That’s why there are so many great fourth-quarter comebacks.”
And he offers this lesson from the world of athletic contests: don’t dwell on your mistakes. “If a lawyer asks a bad question or gets a bad answer, the worst thing he or she can do is brood on it,” Burns says. “If you do, as sure as I’m Bubba, you’ll get beat on the next play too.”
Combining his competitive spirit with the force of his intellect has made Burns a hot commodity with his law firm’s clients. “Before I ever met him in person, I met Bubba through his files,” says Scarlett Lieck, senior vice president and claims director for Texas General Agency, a San Antonio-based insurance company that underwrites auto, commercial and general liability insurance. “When I came into this job, in 1994, I was reviewing all the files and, of all the attorneys we used, his cases impressed me most — the reporting, the accuracy: nobody knows medical issues like Bubba Burns.”
Brown, his former law partner, concurs. He recalls teaming up with Burns on a case that they inherited from another lawyer. There was a “time crunch,” Brown says, and their prospects were “dismal.” “But he got a physician at the last minute who looked at all the X-rays and CAT scans and we won the case. He has good contacts and good rapport with the medical field and he’s willing to put in the time.”
For his part, Burns adheres to a tried-and-true formula: know the rules of evidence and civil procedure, know the law applicable to your case, know the medical material and know the facts. Within that framework, he describes every lawsuit as “putting a big old puzzle together.”
“Sometimes the pieces you get are ugly,” he says. “It may be that my client was involved in a car wreck and ran a stop sign, for example. Or my client was sniffing cocaine. You’ve got to put all of that in the puzzle.”
To conceal information or to obfuscate the truth, he says, will infuriate judge and jury both. By the same token, if he sees inconsistencies in the opposition’s testimony, he’ll seize on them instantly. “A lot of lawyers say that they want the jury to like you,” he says. “But I think it’s more important that they trust you.
“You may not have anyone on that panel who’s like you,” he adds. “You may have nothing in common with them. That’s why trust is so important.”