Brendan Burke ’06 was one of those kids who everyone remembers well. He was outgoing, personable, a bright light who made friends easily, a well-adjusted young man who tragically died too young. In 2010, Brendan, a college student at Miami University, was involved in a terrible car accident during a snowstorm. Both he and a friend were killed. His memory lovingly lives on with family and friends, but the car accident might have cut short his public story if not for one thing...at 21, Brendan had already made a name for himself. Just months earlier, he had come out as a gay man in an article on ESPN.com, thus sparking a nationwide conversation on homosexuality and athletic participation.
To understand all of this, you have to know that Brendan came from a hockey family. His father is Brian Burke, a famed-NHL manager with a long career in professional and Olympic hockey management and broadcasting. From a young age, Brendan’s world revolved around the ice. It continued at Xaverian, where he played hockey until his senior year before abruptly quitting. At the time, he told his family it was because he wasn’t good enough and didn’t want to be a backup. He later admitted that it was because he didn’t think he could handle another season pretending not to be gay, listening to his teammates’ locker room talk.
After Xaverian, Brendan went on to Miami University in Ohio where the pull of the game hooked him back in. He became a RedHawks student manager and was once again immersed in hockey culture. Then in 2007, he made the brave step to come out to his family...they said they loved him. In 2009, he told the RedHawks organization…they were unphased and supportive. He even came back to Xaverian and told an auditorium full of students about his experience...they gave him a standing ovation. But the biggest splash was when he told ESPN. Brendan had read an article in USA Today written by Justin Bourne, a former minor league hockey player who was advocating for the end of homophobic slurs in hockey locker rooms. Brendan emailed Justin to thank him, and one thing led to another...suddenly Brendan had an offer by ESPN’s John Buccigross to write an article about his coming out and how both his famously tough hockey father and the Miami University hockey program accepted him.
"Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn't accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn't come out because I'd be fired or ostracized,” he is quoted in the ESPN article. “People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn't all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are."
ESPN published the article on December 2, 2009. Days later, Brendan appeared alongside his father in a live TV interview on TSN, talking about how all people should feel safe to participate in sports--gay, straight, or otherwise.
Then on February 10, 2009, Buccigross published another article about Brendan, this one after attending his funeral. He wrote, “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.”
Brendan’s bravery and light made waves in the hockey world, and the ripples have been felt since. Now, his family continues his mission as advocates. His brother, Patrick Burke ’01, helped form the You Can Play Project on the premise that sexual orientation should not matter in sports. “If you can play, you can play” is their motto. He is now the Senior Director of Player Safety for the NHL, but he finds time to continue the conversation, ensuring that Brendan’s message still resonates today.
In March, Patrick, his mother, Kerry, and his two sisters, Molly and Katie, all came to Xaverian to talk to Without XCeption, a club founded to acknowledge and offer support to students in various stages of awareness, acceptance, and openness about their sexual orientation. Brendan’s family talked about his coming out process and their reaction to the news, his experience as a gay man in sports (both at Xaverian and at the collegiate level), and the role his family continues to play as advocates. There were a lot of laughs, a few tears, but most importantly, an open and judgment-free conversation, as the Xaverian community remembers Brendan and strives to carry on his legacy.
“As a Xaverian Brothers Sponsored School, our mission calls us to love and respect each of God’s sons and daughters, without exception,” says Brother Daniel Skala, Headmaster. “We were honored to welcome back the Burke family, and grateful for their candid message of love and acceptance for all. It is our aim at Xaverian to be an inclusive community, respecting the differences in one another.”
For more information about the You Can Play Project, go to youcanplayproject.org