When he leaped into the air toward the hoop, he was high school stud and superstar Lenny Burke. When he collapsed onto the floor bouncing his head off the court not once, but twice, he wasn’t that 17-year old kid anymore.
People in the crowd were stunned, thinking he would be permanently brain damaged or even die.
But that day turned out to be a just a bend in the road for Burke, not the end of the road. And although he isn’t a presence on the court anymore, he is perhaps a bigger presence in the lives of so many others.
Yvonne Daley came to Castleton University on Sept.10 to share Burke’s story through her book, “The Bend in the Road.” Daley is a nationally recognized author and journalist with five non-fiction books countless articles. She is an expert in restorative journalism, creating stories that are character driven. For Daley’s stories, she said she asks questions like, “How do we heal? How can we have prevented this? What can we learn from this? What can we change?”
Burke’s story is a perfect example of restorative journalism, she said.
Daley used the projector to pull up a picture of a curly-haired, handsome, bright-eyed boy whose dream was to be on the Boston Celtics.
“Good lookin’ kid, huh?” she asked the room full of students.
Daley told Burke’s tragic story of how in January 1979 he was in the second period of his game playing for Mount Saint Joseph Academy and was going up for his signature layup. While in the air, a Mount Anthony player intentionally undercut him resulting in Burke landing on his head – hard.
“Pretty scary, isn’t it?” asked Daley while showing a Rutland Herald picture of Burke right before impact.
The packed 1787 Room full silent.
Castleton’s President Wolk was the guidance counselor at MSJ at the time. He and his wife even temporarily moved into the Burke home to help the family with the other three children when Burke was in the hospital.
“A lot of friends were in and out of the house … We wanted to create a sense of normalcy for the other kids. We just tried to help out,” said Wolk in a phone interview Friday.
Burke was in a coma for nearly 50 days and wasn’t showing signs of progress. From days of researching, his mother Emma, “Emmie,” knew just about as much if not more about brain injuries in the 1970s than most doctors, Daley said.
One evening, Daley said Burke’s doctor, Peter Upton, admitted to thinking Burke was not going to make it through the night; his brain simply had too much pressure on it. The Burke family said their goodbyes to their son and took him off life support machines.
But he made it through the night and Emmie wasn’t ready to let her son go.
“She had trust in her own common sense,” Daley said.
She had read somewhere that the sense of smell was the last sense to go and was going to use familiar scents to pull her son from his coma.
She first hung his smelly basketball sneakers over his nose, then his favorite kind of pizza, then sprayed his girlfriends perfume. She jingled the coveted car keys above him and talked to him each day. His coach came before and after games to share team strategies. The community rallied together and money came in from all over the country. Even Celtics player Larry Bird became involved, Daley said.
Upton then performed surgery on Burke to relieve the pressure and was listening to Jack Healy live on the radio. People from all over the country were calling in making donations for Burke totaling nearly $100,000.
“You hear that Lenny, they’re talking about you,” said Upton.
“I hear that doc,” said Lenny, stunning the doctor.
Students’ mouths dropped open in awe.
But it gets better.
“What he told them was absolutely amazing,” said Daley, who went on to say how Lenny spoke of seeing his grandfather, whom he’d never met, offering his nickname, Augie, and the fact that he had long hair.
“I remember that so well and it was 37 years ago … it’ still a very vivid memory for me,” said Wolk of Burke coming out of his coma.
Communication professor David Blow, who went to grade school with the Burke children, said he too remembers how the area was gripped by the tragedy and then elated at his unlikely return from the coma.
“But I also remember seeing him in the days after he awoke and feeling a little sad that he had transformed so much physically,” he said. “We all looked up to him.”
Today the Lenny Burke Farm in Wallingford, is a “homey-feeling” rehabilitation center for those who suffered serious head injuries and strokes. And it was Burke’s idea to open it, Daley said. There, people from all over the country get the benefit of all the research started as a result of Burke’s injuries and they truly transform in ways people thought weren’t possible, Daley said.
Meredith, Buddy, “Jeep,” Vanessa, Jim, and Jason were just a few residents of the farm Daley introduced and shared their stories detailing the major progress they’ve made.
“The clients help with the cooking, laundry, they have classes … they provide a residence where they can be part of the family … It’s home for them,” said Daley.
Burke, she said, works at the farm as an inspiration for so many of the clients. Daley said his primary role is his amazing “presence” and spirit.
Wolk said he still keeps in touch with Lenny and Emmie and is impressed with Lenny’s long-term memory.
“He always recalls beating me 1 on 1 in basketball, which he did, and he recalls beating me on the golf course, which he did,” Wolk admitted with a laugh.
Because of Lenny, Emmie, and Dr. Ron Savage, the research that has been done in the field of head injuries has grown enormously, Daley said. Savage is now an international leading expert in the field of brain injury and credits his work to Lenny, according to an article called “Book Chronicles Rutland Man’s Revolutionary Impact on Traumatic Brain Injury Research.”
“What happened to him helped thousands of others,” said Daley.