Miamian Spring 2010 - Feature Story - Brendan's Gift

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Brendan's Gift

By Paul Daugherty

The hockey team would not turn Brendan Burke into The Gipper. They wouldn't cheapen his memory that way. "Burkie" was a friend, a coach, a teammate. He was joy in the room, every day. He was not a prop. "We're going to respect and honor him for who he was and what he meant to us," coach Rico Blasi '94 said a few weeks before the RedHawks' postseason began in March. "It's very disrespectful to ask us if we're going to use this as a rallying point. That's totally Hollywood."

Brendan with sisters
Gracie and Katie.

The sentiment was well taken. But Hollywood wasn't in this story.

If life were a movie, Brendan Burke would be alive. He'd be in the coaches' office, on the computer, breaking down video of the RedHawks' next opponent. He'd be checking his BlackBerry for Boston Red Sox updates and news from the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, where his father is the general manager.

Burkie'd be saying hello to everyone, asking about their girlfriends and their wives. He'd be having a good day. Good days were all he knew.

He'd be around for a long time. Brendan Burke would run for office and win. Or maybe he'd run an NHL team. He'd use his Irish and his eyes and his smile – oh, that smile, a roomful of sunshine, it was! – to win the day, every day. He was a poli sci major. He intended to go to law school.

He managed the Miami hockey team. There could be a career path here. He'd follow in his father's extra-large skates. And maybe, after a time, no gay kid ever again would sacrifice his ambitions to a sad perception.

The future seemed a smooth skate. What could be harder than what Brendan had done already? He'd told the world he was gay. He told his dad. The world said OK. Better, the world said OK and yawned. His dad said OK, then joined him in a gay pride parade in Toronto. It was a good time to be Brendan Burke. And he was just getting warmed up.

But life isn't Hollywood. Brendan Burke died in a car wreck on a lonely stretch of snowy state highway in Indiana, in February, the loneliest of months. He was 21. He left behind a seed of a legacy. And so much to live for.

It wouldn't be right to define Brendan through his sexual orientation. It was just a part of who he was. Such a seamless part, in fact, that his coming-out caused barely a fuss. "The guys loved him before we knew," said his friend Nick Petraglia '04 MS '07, Miami's director of hockey operations. "We loved him after."

Brendan was a great student. He could hang with the hockey team in the afternoon and the drama majors at night. He appreciated the rich tapestry of a liberal arts college, where he could manage a hockey team while embracing Spectrum, Miami's GLBT student organization.

He was blessed with a sense of wonder that is bequeathed to all young people, even those who choose not to use it. "He always had something to say, and it was always insightful," said Lisa Poirier, an associate professor of comparative religion. "This was a kid who was going to make a mark."

He was a hockey manager in title only. Team managers sweep floors, sharpen skates, wash towels. Brendan did that. He also broke down video, kept stats, recruited players for community service, and treated people the right way.

That last quality doesn't fit on a resume, but it was Brendan's gift. Numerous players and coaches tried to describe it, and couldn't. How do you describe a rainbow?

Brendan's brother, Patrick, called it "a genuine kindness." Kindness can't be quantified, only cherished. "Burkie made all his relationships meaningful" was how MU forward Tommy Wingels put it.

Brendan, sister Molly, and their dad, Brian, celebrate the Anaheim Ducks' Stanley Cup win in 2007. Brian was the team's GM at the time.

So, no, Brendan's sexual orientation didn't define him. But ultimately, the way he handled that issue just might. He told his father, Brian, in December 2007. Brendan had suspected he was gay for several years. He tried to suppress it. "It's pretty easy to try and convince yourself that it's not true," Brendan said on ESPN.com last November. "But it won't work."

"It was something he was trying to feel out about himself after high school," explained Nick Petraglia. Brendan was a goalie on his high-school team, until his senior year. He didn't go out for the team that year, fearing his secret would be revealed.

Understand: The athletic world is machismo, on high heat. The hockey world is beyond high. "A sport where homophobic slurs get thrown around a lot," said RedHawks forward Pat Cannone. Burke waited more than a year after he told his father before he told the Miami team. Not only because he feared for himself. That wouldn't have been Burkie. He also considered the effect it might have on the coaches and players. "He didn't want to come in and shake up our universe," Petraglia said.

He didn't. His revelation was a pebble skimmed across a pond. Burkie was Burkie. That was all.

Here's the legacy part, though. Here's what made Burke's admission so important, and his passing so tragic: His coming-out made better people out of everyone who knew him.

The hockey players now think before they speak. They understand the power of words, even offhand words. Thanks to Brendan, they've become more human and more appreciative of what real courage is. It's more than playing on a bad leg.

Said Petraglia, "Brendan opened our eyes to the way we spoke and the way we treated people. It was great to see our guys accept him. No, accept is the wrong word. We always accepted him. It was great to see how our guys handled it. It was an educational experience."

Last fall, Brendan took a course from Lisa Poirier called "Women in American Religious History.” He had to write a 10-page paper on a strong woman in American religion. Brendan picked Angelina Grimke.

Born in 1805, Grimke was the daughter of a slaveholding South Carolina judge and an outspoken proponent of racial and gender equity. She left home at an early age, repudiating her family's beliefs, and became one of the country's foremost abolitionists. "Someone who put it all on the line for her convictions," Poirier explained.

Sounds familiar.

In his paper, Brendan quotes Grimke. She is writing to a female friend who has expressed doubts about Grimke's strident stance on women's rights:

"Measure her rights and duties by the unerring standard of moral being," wrote Grimke, "not by the false weights and measures of a mere circumstance of her human existence."

We don't know why Brendan Burke chose to write about Angelina Grimke, and we never will. But we can guess.

A life ends, just as it begins. Brendan Burke had started something big and meaningful and important. And he didn't get to live it. You can try to find reason for this, but reason is a butterfly. A bright life, young and improving, is dashed. It was as if he had one mission on Earth, and when he completed it successfully, he was needed elsewhere.

About 350 people attended Brendan's memorial service in Kumler Chapel in February. Everyone remembered and cried. Lisa Poirier read Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Dirge Without Music”:

"Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

"I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."

Team seniors show off Miami's CCHA regular-season championship trophy. The "BB” shamrock on their uniforms is a tribute to Brendan.

The hockey team plays on. The players took what they could from Brendan's life. They seek their own clarification for why he died. They are 19 and 20 and 21. They don't know a lot about dying, except they're not planning on it anytime soon. Mortality comes after the game. They're still early in the first period. The ice is still clean. "It wasn't like he was sick," explained Nick Petraglia. "He was taken from us."

The movie didn't end the way anyone wanted it to. The sequel awaits. It'll be more about life than death. Whenever a scared kid in a hockey suit ponders a confession of his own, he'll have the strength of Brendan's actions from which to draw. "He was out there, a pioneer," said Rico Blasi. "And he still had a smile on his face."

"Do what you do" is Blasi's message to his team. "Know Brendan is along for the ride."

I asked the coach for an epitaph.

"Simple," Blasi said. "He loved life to the fullest."

Loved?

Yes.

Paul Daugherty, a Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist, has been named one of the country’s top-5 sports columnists four times.


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