Jeff Burnham was a strong man who was soft on tough kids

June 24, 2014
Jeff Burnham, a two-way tackle at Cape, was a member of the class of 1986.

Jeff Burnham was tough but never mean, rugged but mostly gentle, loyal like a Labrador, smart like a professor guy who laughed spontaneously when his buddies went stupid.  He was also respectful of older folks who impacted his life and always let them know it. Jeff knew tradition and was proud wherever he was part of it.

I was Jeff’s line coach his senior year at Cape and also a social studies classroom teacher. I joked that the offensive line of Tom Sombar, Sean Maedler, Mike Hilligoss, Myron Selby and Jeff, all pushing 1,200 on their SATs, were too smart to play reckless defense; they should stay on the calculating side of the football where they could exploit the “act and react” defenders who tracked down ball carriers like Chesapeakes on wounded ducks.

One practice day I was working live line blocking against unsuspecting defenders and sent Jeff pulling to kick out sophomore Frank Sekscinski. Frank saw him coming and instead of stepping down to meet and neutralize the block took off running for Route 1. We all fell out laughing and Frank turned toward me and said, “Are you crazy? I don’t want to get run over by that truck.”

Jeff was jazzed to start at nose guard in a game down at Indian River, but on the very first play from scrimmage Jeff’s hand got caught up inside the center's face mask and his finger split open, exposing the bone. Jeff was on his back, looking at his hand and screaming.  I had a similar experience in high school with a mere dislocated finger at a right angle, and I had totally freaked out. It’s not the pain, but rather the sudden vision of your own deformity that causes the reaction.

When Jeff came back to play, the cast and splint on his finger looked like they were wrapped to protect everyone in the stadium including the cheerleaders. Jeff had this cartoon-looking club at the end of his arm but he played because he didn't want to leave the game.

Jeff died Friday night, and I know he didn’t want to leave the game, and God knows we want him here.

Sunday, June 22, was the 19th Bill Degnan 5K. Bill was a teacher and coach who died at 43 years of age, and like Jeff he was a strong man who was soft on tough kids. Jeff worked at the alternative school and could have come home to Cape whenever he wanted, but he liked knowing he could help kids who were down to their last chance.

The last football practice of Jeff’s senior year, coach Rob Schroeder had a tradition: Each senior would take a free shot at their position coach who was holding a heavy blocking dummy. I stood there and braced myself as Jeff came roaring at me from 15 yards away like a runaway coal car heading toward a mountain goat. I knew it was the stupidest decision I ever made while sober.

Jeff rocked me as the pain in my sternum radiated out to my ribs, and my mandible chattered while my teeth felt like 32 root canals.  I didn’t have a stinger; I had been stung by a “Milton Man o' War. “

Jeff looked over and gave me a “bad ass boy” look and I returned his gaze like, “That’s all you got?”

Jeff was just a thoroughly good person and we are all hurting. Hell, I’m still hurting from 1986. Love you, Jeff. Thanks for being my friend.

Snippets - The three-day Beach Blast girls' lacrosse tournament at Cape Henlopen will take place Friday, June 27 through Sunday, June 29. The nonstop action takes place on seven fields including two turf, two Bermuda and three grass. Groups as young as the graduating class of 2020 will be in action, so get your canopy ready. College coaches will be cruising all over this tournament, and they are asked to bring their own chairs.

Junior lifeguard programs are up and running from Rehoboth to Dewey and state parks beaches. It all culminates later in summer with Junior Lifeguard Olympics in Rehoboth.

I was M.C. Hamburger for the Phillies Ball Girls versus a star-studded Sussex County squad at Sports at the Beach to benefit Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding. The microphone didn’t work - could be a law - and DJ Kenny Reidel rigged something and said I could talk into his ear buds, but I didn’t fall for that trick. It was a great event, over at 4 p.m because the Philly girls had to catch the 5 o’clock “furry."  Late author and sportswriter Lewis Grizzard wrote a book “Shoot Low, Boys, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies." During the post-game festivities I thought I saw a Shetland pony circling the bases but was later corrected and informed it was a miniature horse.  I skipped the barbecue afterward, remembering another Grizzard book, “Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night."

Go on now, git!