It is a word we use often, typically to describe fearlessness, strength or bravery in the face of danger. Most frequently we use it in a sporting context, detailing the courage it took for a perceived lesser opponent to face a seemingly-stronger entity, to hold one’s ground despite the odds, to take on a daunting challenge with maximum effort. We describe it as “heart,” which historically is at the root of the word itself.
On December 2nd, 2009, Brendan Burke showed the world just what it is to have courage, to have heart. In an article penned by John Buccigross of ESPN, Mr. Burke discussed his life as a closeted homosexual within the closed community of sport, the acceptance of his sexuality by his family and his team, and the hope he had for the breaking down of barriers within the machismo-dominated and homophobic culture of team athletics.
As we know, this was not just any member of an athletic community choosing to come out in a public forum; this was the son of one of the biggest names in hockey, Brian Burke, viewed by many as the very embodiment of manhood, maschismo, testosterone, toughness — all those qualities which the world has historically taught us define the very essence of what it is to be a man.
Here was this young man, an outgoing and well-liked member of the athletic community, with a world of opportunity ahead of him in the lucrative industry of hockey operations, willing to risk it all for a greater cause: opening those doors to acceptance which had so long been closed. And here was his father, the man perhaps most-associated with the sporting world’s conceptions of masculinity, standing beside his son and resolutely stating: Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe. This, too, was an act of courage: one of facing down one’s own self, and putting love ahead of labels, the value of known qualities ahead of the pressure of societal preconceptions.
Brian Burke made good on his pledge, steadfastly supporting his son through the crush of news cycles that were sure to follow. Miami University (Ohio), whose hockey team employed Brendan as a student manager, offered their full acceptance and support from administration members all the way down to the athletes themselves, who insisted that Brendan’s coming out changed absolutely nothing about the friend they admired and loved.
On February 5, 2010, tragedy struck. Brendan Burke and his friend Mark Reedy lost their lives when the vehicle Brendan was driving lost control on an ice-covered road and collided with an oncoming truck. The outpouring of support for the Burke family was tremendous, from the media to fans to all those touched by Brendan’s message. And through this, something special began to happen.
When we speak of a person’s spirit, we often speak in terms of an energy, an emotion, an aura that a person possesses and/or conveys. It can be defined as the basis of emotion, and of character; a synonym for what we might call the soul, the root of our ability to inspire.
Shortly after the tragic accident, many were motivated to take action in the spirit of Brendan’s memory: players at the Olympics wore military-style dog tags engraved with his name; Miami University established the Brendan Burke Memorial Scholarship; USA Hockey established the Brendan Burke Internship for students pursuing careers in hockey operations; the Chicago Blackhawks sent the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Pride Parade; and Brian Burke himself marched in the Toronto Pride Parade, vowing to continue to do so in memory of his son and support for his goal of there being a day where sexuality was no longer an issue in the locker room — or any workplace — a goal whose achievement he so passionately believed possible.
Although nothing can ever replace the pain of tragic loss, Brendan’s memory — and his spirit — continue to live on through the ongoing efforts of the hockey community, and all of those touched by his story, to understand, embrace and promote the principles for which he stood.
We define a hero as one who is admired for achievement in the face of great difficulty, for foraging a new trail in the face of immense resistance and opposition, one who inspires with their fortitude and nobility in pursuit of a seemingly-insurmountable goal.
Like most of those we define as heroes, Brendan Burke did not set out to be one. And yet his courage to stand up and announce to the world “This is who I am,” to hold open the doorway that stands between the last bastion of our conceptions of machismo and the greater realities of the world beyond, proved an inspiration whose impact was felt well beyond the LGBT and athletic communities. The dedication of his father — perceived in sport as the very essence of what it is to be a man — to carry his legacy forward poses a question we all must face: if this man, the very embodiment of what for generations we have been taught a “real man” should be, is ready and willing to take up the torch and lead the way toward breaking down the barriers of homophobia, what is our excuse?
How is Brendan Burke remembered, two years following his passing? Most people you ask, most articles you read, will include the word courageous while recounting the young man’s story.
And therein lies the great irony of the culture of competitive sport. The very culture which historically has marginalized individuals based upon antiquated notions of what it is have worth as a man or value as an individual, is predicated on strength, resolve, leadership … all those qualities that go into the universal word which we are taught defines a man: toughness. These just so happen to be the same descriptors we use to define courage … the word we think of most when we think of Brendan Burke.
We all leave behind a legacy, something for which we are remembered long beyond our time. Brendan Burke will be remembered for opening a door which few had the courage to even acknowledge existed, and to not just hold it open but walk right through it and show us there was nothing to be afraid of on the other side, offering hope that we, too, can do the same. Brian Burke has continued to carry his legacy forward, using his celebrity and position of influence to bring greater attention to the flawed manner in which so many segments of society evaluate a human being’s worth.
And now it is up to us. The world evolves based upon our actions as a collective body, and that evolutionary process begins and ends with each of us as an individual. We must all take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we believe in, how we can contribute to furthering that belief, and the legacy we wish to leave behind to inspire others in our wake. Brendan Burke opened the doors. Brian Burke walks through them daily. But it is up to us to follow him through those doors, if the change his son so dearly believed was possible is ever to become a reality.
In any instance of change, it takes courage to not only lead, but also to follow; to either set an example or reinforce the one that has been set out before us. An individual is not defined by the adversity with which he or she is faced; rather, an individual is defined by the manner in which he or she chooses to face adversity. For this, we need heroes to inspire us; for this, we have Brendan Burke, his father, and the millions who have followed in their stead, changing the world daily simply through believing in the values of acceptance, respect, and love, and allowing their belief in those values to shine through in their daily lives. It’s that easy, and revealing that to us is the gift Brendan Burke was able to share with the world, a gift which continues to be shared through his memory, his legacy, and ourselves.
Written by Garrett Bauman