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They Call Him Thunder

If the music is pumping at the Murphy Football Center, chances are that Thunder is working. And that means the football team is getting stronger.

Photograph by Marc Hall '20 MA.

Dantonio “Thunder” Burnette ’03, ’07 MED, an all-ACC linebacker for NC State in 2002, is an assistant athletics director and the director of strength and conditioning for Wolfpack football — the only NC State alumnus on the coaching staff. Burnette, 38, still looks like he could do some damage on the field, but he’s more concerned these days with proper technique and a balanced approach to conditioning than he is with brute strength. “Our number-one goal is to be healthy,” he says.

Burnette and his assistant strength coaches all have graduate degrees. “Sometimes strength coaches can get labeled as just being meatheads,” he says. “That’s the last thing we want. We want to be looked at as educators.”

That means explaining to the players the reasons behind the various strength exercises, not to mention the importance of yoga, massage therapy and recovery to proper conditioning. Oh, and sleep. “I have to tell them, ‘You have to get off the phone, get off social media, get off Fortnite,’” Burnette says.

The players come in groups for 90-minute sessions each morning during the off-season. With the sounds of rappers and hip hop artists like Lil Baby, 21 Savage and J. Cole along with the constant clank of heavy metal, the players waste no time as they move from station to station. “It’s gonna take stress off your shoulders,” Burnette tells a player pressing two 110-pound dumbbells. “One more thing — bring it right down to your stomach. There you go.”

Burnette is a numbers guy, able to rattle off the top of his head how much various players can lift or how much weight they have put on. He keeps photos on his phone that show the progression of his players’ bodies through the years, something he shares with NFL scouts as part of the player’s “résumé.”

Bradley Chubb, who arrived as a 230-pound freshman and left in 2018 as a 275-pound first-round NFL draft pick, says Burnette was a father figure. “I was always in his office asking for advice,” says Chubb, an outside linebacker for the Denver Broncos. “My main goal was to work hard so Coach Thunder wouldn’t come down on me hard.”

Burnette has high expectations for his players that extend beyond the work in the weight room. As he finishes leading a group through stretches at the end of the training session, Burnette calls the players to huddle around him. “Remember, go to class,” he tells them. “Make sure you take care of that.” The players, as one, respond, “Yessir.” Thunder has spoken. 

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