Let me tell you about Lenny Burke.

Unless you grew up in the Rutland, Vermont area or you’re a Vermont high school basketball historian, you’ve probably never heard of Lenny. With Thanksgiving still on our minds and the high school basketball season about to begin, I’ll tell you the story of one of the most inspirational athletes of my life.

On Monday, my high school, Mt. St. Joseph Academy, will dedicate its basketball court to Lenny. Had things happened differently, Burke would’ve gone down as the best basketball player ever to come out of MSJ. He’s obviously the most inspirational.

It was Jan. 23, 1979. A senior, Burke led the Southern Vermont League in scoring and was on his way to 1,000 points. He was unaided by the 3-pointer, which was still eight years from being adopted into the Vermont high school basketball rulebook. He had been accepted to Middlebury College and the University of Vermont. Leading the Mounties against rival Mt. Anthony of Bennington, Burke went in for a layup.

A Mt. Anthony player cut Burke’s legs out from under him. Burke hit the backboard, then crashed headfirst to the floor.

He tried to stand up, and passed out. The Rutland Herald ran a photo of Burke — almost horizontal to the floor — in the moment before he hit his head. Rushed to the hospital, Burke underwent surgery that night to stem the bleeding in his brain. It saved his life, but Burke wasn’t in the clear.

Burke spent 45 days in a coma. Yvone Daley wrote of what happened when he came out of the coma in her Burke biography, “The Bend in the Road.” A doctor inserting a shunt into Burke’s brain to lessen the swelling listened to a radio fundraiser for the Burke family. ‘You hear that, Lenny?’ he asked.

“I hear that,” Lenny said.

Burke went on to graduate from MSJ with the Class of 1981. He never got to go to Middlebury or the University of Vermont, but he’s still alive and active — which to many who saw him go down on that night is a miracle.

Every kid who went through MSJ heard the story. Somebody — an older student or a teacher or a parent — pointed to that end of the court and said “That’s where Lenny Burke was hit.” It would be a tragic tale, if not for the fight Burke showed to live in the critical initial days after the injury or the class and grace he’s showed in life since.

It’s a common basketball play. Player goes in for a layup. Player takes a hard foul. Player crumples to the court and the crowd holds its breath for a moment, until player gets up and goes to the free throw line, shaken up by otherwise fine. I know I’ll see a play like that this season and I’ll think of Lenny Burke.

I thought of Lenny Burke in February when Old Town’s Mitchell Cole taken down by a similar hard foul in a Class B regional quarterfinal win over Caribou. Cole was lucky in that his injuries ended in a concussion and a split chin, and not a coma.

The Burke family — led by Lenny’s mother Emmie — started Lenny Burke’s Farm in 1987. The farm in Wallingford, just outside Rutland, is a residential rehabilitation center for patients with traumatic brain injuries. He works at the facility now and is an inspiration to the patients, an example to not give up. There are now five Lenny Burke Farm facilities with a sixth on the way.

If not for the injury maybe MSJ would have named the court in Lenny Burke’s honor anyway for his play on it. As it is, it’s a fantastic tribute to the man and a reminder to everyone who plays or watches a basketball game there to keep fighting themselves.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

@TLazarczykMTM


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