Commentary

There's a light that never goes out

Updated: February 10, 2010, 2:32 PM ET
By John Buccigross | ESPN.com

A few select people on this earth illuminate. They shine with a softened glow. Not a glow for show, but a glow from an intense love of people and life. You might know a person like this.

Brendan Gilmore Burke, who died Friday in a car accident in Indiana and was buried Tuesday in Dorchester, Mass., was one of those people. That was why, at his open-casket wake Monday night, I knelt before him and softly grabbed his right arm hoping for one more jolt, craving one more moment of enlightenment and wondering what the next 21 years would have been like.

Brendan Burke
The Burke FamilyBrendan Burke, standing by the Stanley Cup, after his father won it all with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.

The next 21 years.

People liked Brendan 10 seconds after meeting him. His wasn't a flamboyant or self-serving gallop. He was there for you. He connected quickly with people because he had a genuine interest in you. His kindness had no patience.

Mourners waited in a long, frigid line at Monday night's wake. They snaked out of Dockray and Thomas Funeral Home like fans waiting to buy tickets for Game 7. They wanted to be in the same room with Brendan one more time. The wake was scheduled from 2 to 8 p.m.

Of course, it went to overtime; Brendan's family, including his father, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, left at 10:15.

Mourners ranged from the hockey elite to childhood buddies. I met waves of Brendan's high school and college friends. One friend said that not only was there no bad thing you could say about Brendan, but there also wasn't anyone who could say an average thing about him.

Meanwhile, I couldn't have swung a Maple Leafs souvenir ministick without hitting one of Brian's siblings. Brian grew up alongside nine brothers and sisters -- an eclectic, interesting, smart and crazy group of Irish siblings. And loyal. They felt like family.

Brendan had that youthful energy -- a Burke family trait. He used it to float through life. I imagine he would have had that boyish bounce until every hair on his head was gray and brittle. He was a modern man with an old-school heart.

The next 21 years? Free to fly. The first 21? While mostly sweet, they endured the divorce of his parents and the draining, complex path to self-awareness. Now unburdened, he was ready to soar.

Brendan was on the verge of graduating from Miami University in Ohio. He then was going on to law school and a destiny of ripping every job interview into the top corner. But a winter storm and slippery road took his hard-earned peace of mind ... and the next 21 years, and the 21 after that.

[+] EnlargeBurke Funeral
AP Photo/Michael DwyerMembers of the Miami University hockey team leave a memorial service for Brendan Burke on Tuesday.

Over the next 21 years, Brendan would have methodically and carefully moved his way up the ladder of success. The selfless take their time by enjoying every moment and living a life in which other people's feelings are considered. Everyone got that feeling at the overflowing funeral mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in Canton, Mass., on a sunny Tuesday morning.

The entire Toronto Maple Leafs team was there wearing expensive, dapper suits. The entire Miami University RedHawks squad (the No. 1 NCAA hockey team in the country, for which Brendan was a student manager and video assistant) was there wearing red road jerseys. It was the hardest road game those players will face, and they couldn't hide their emotions. As they exited the church, the RedHawks players' tears spilled onto the shamrocks sewn just above their hearts, with the initials "BB" encased in the clover.

These hockey players probably all will have the next 21 years, the years young men crave the most. Brendan will not, and that brought the players unbearable pain as they exited the church. They looked sad, confused and scared. Subconsciously, they were following Burkie's great example: Be yourself and let it go. The players seemed a bit more at peace at the reception that followed.

What would have become of Brendan during the next 21 years?

I would have hoped he would have become a teacher and coach at some point; lighting people up with his glow would have been best utilized on the young. He would have indelibly inspired, shaped and motivated kids with his energetic words and actions, and led with a kindly light amid the encircling doom of adolescence and young adulthood.

Burkie would have been the all-time favorite teacher of hundreds of students. He would have written books, spoken at conventions, probably run for local or state office, started a blog, been a guest on television and radio, and probably become well known for many things. But teaching would have been his core strength because his strength was his quest for intimacy. His light was a spotlight ... on you.

And so gently grasping his right arm at the wake and hoping for one beam of light, it dawned on me. Yes, Brendan was a star, but he blazed because he found a little gleam in each of us. If his memory enlightens anything in us, it is this: CONFIDENCE.

A terrible loss for the Burke/Gilmore family and Brendan's friends? Unspeakably and unquestionably. But thank goodness they got the first 21 years, the 21 years friends and families treasure most because the team is almost always together and at its most intimate.

But Brendan Gilmore Burke's death is an even bigger loss for the people in the future who would have known and experienced him just once or on a daily basis. I feel the loss the most for these unknown faces. Because during the next 21 years, they will never see the light.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.

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