Football | More than a football fight: Corey Burns plays for his dad
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 10, 2013 02:10
The first year that sophomore Corey Burns played organized football, he was the new kid at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School. Through eighth grade, he had attended private school, and now he was just trying to fit in.
To that point, Corey’s dad, Bernie, had not allowed him to play football, but the former Div. I player had taught his son a thing or two in the backyard. Without ever playing a game, Corey stepped onto the field as the best athlete on the team. One of his teammates — a bully, the head honcho — felt threatened. He didn’t want the new kid messing with the pecking order.
One day at practice, Corey and the bully squared off in a drill. They laid down, helmet-to-helmet, with the bully holding the ball. When the whistle blew, they were to stand up and charge at each other. As the one without the ball, Corey had the upper hand.
The whistle blew. The boys scampered to their feet. They charged. And then —
“Everything that my dad taught me was what I did,” Corey recalled last week.
“Corey cracked him,” Bernie said Saturday.
He broke the bully’s shoulder.
“That, right there, was the start of my football career,” Corey said.
Bernie loves that story. He tells it to this day.
Corey fit in just fine at high school. He played basketball, threw for the track team and was a stud linebacker. He had tons of friends. Everyone knew who he was.
“He was like the mayor of Whitman-Hanson,” his mom Lynne said, sporting a Boston accent thicker than Corey’s. “That’s what we would call him.”
But as Corey thrived, and as his older brother Clint excelled as a runner, there were troubling signs coming from their father. Bernie’s eyesight was fading, and prescription glasses didn’t seem to help. He started misplacing things often and jumbling his words. He took wrong turns in the car, and on one occasion he made a left onto the wrong side of the road.
Meanwhile, by the time Corey was a junior, he was being recruited by Div. I football schools. Despite recurring ACL injuries, the 16-year-old took official visits to big-name programs like Boston College and Holy Cross.
In June 2010, Clint won the state championship in the half-mile. A few days later, Bernie was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Given the already apparent symptoms, Bernie probably could have been diagnosed earlier. But the revelation still shook the family to its core. This was their father, their leader, their rock. This was the man who had built much of their home in Whitman, Mass. with his own hands. Now, although those same hands remained sturdy as ever, his mind was deteriorating.
“I cried for a whole weekend,” Lynne said Saturday. “I didn’t know what to do because he had been such a man’s man, a leader, and I felt protected by him. I knew my life was gonna change.”
As the disease began to strip Bernie of his basic abilities, Lynne filled the void. She did the bills. She brought Corey to football camps. She dealt with the doctors. She helped her husband get dressed.
At first, the family struggled to come to terms with the situation. Lynne was overwhelmed. Corey was upset. Bernie was afraid. But their Christian faith helped them move forward. Their church community offered support, and Bernie and Lynne performed daily devotions to keep themselves on the right track. Pretty soon, Bernie came to accept his condition.
“He knows it sucks,” Corey said. “He knows, eventually, it’s going to kill him. But he smiles every day. He makes jokes every day.”
The summer of the diagnosis marked Bernie’s last months working at the Brockton post office, where he and Lynne met and had worked for over 30 years. Corey took a job sorting mail so that he and his mom could look after Bernie, with Lynne working from early afternoon until night and Corey working from late afternoon until early in the morning. Lynne would bring her husband there, and Corey, during his break, would take his father home. After that summer, Bernie retired.
Now, Corey is always just an hour away at Tufts, and his uncle David — Lynne’s brother — lives next door in Whitman and offers support. Clint, whom Corey talks to frequently and views as a role model, is less accessible: He’s in the Air Force, working with the bomb squad.
Lynne is the glue that holds the family together. She continues to work as an expeditor at the post office — without that income, she would be unable to keep the home — and she keeps regular tabs on Bernie, who is 58 and needs almost constant assistance. Lynne prepares every meal for him. She calls him every few hours from work. At home, she writes messages for him on cards in giant letters.
“She’s spread thin,” Corey said. “She’s kept the family running.”
Bernie’s Alzheimer’s placed a great burden on Lynne’s shoulders, and she rose to the occasion.
But it also did something else: It lit a fire inside Corey.
A Jumbo after all
Three years ago, when Tufts football head coach Jay Civetti and assistant Kevin Farr first met Corey at a camp at Boston College, they were immediately drawn to his demeanor. Between the lines, Corey was a brute, crushing ball carriers and making defensive plays all over the field. But because of missed time due to two ACL surgeries, the coaches didn’t have much film to help them confirm their snap judgments.
After talking to Corey, they had all the confirmation they needed.
“Instantaneously, when I met him, I believed in him and thought his character was far more important than how he played football,” Civetti said. “I was enamored by who he was as a person.”