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Bisons' Burkhardt knows the devastation of cancer

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In a world where his peers can’t wait to tell everyone about every aspect of their lives through some form of technology Tyler Burkhardt prefers his privacy.

Not one for public displays of emotion Burkhardt, a sophomore defender/midfielder for the Lipscomb Bisons soccer team, gives little hint of what his feelings might be about a situation.

He was just entering his teenage years when his mother, Patti, died of cancer. Some of his teammates still may not know about that chapter in his life.

“I don’t tell people about this,” Burkhardt said. “I think everyone on the team knows, but there could be chance that there are some on the team that don’t know.

“I don’t try to make a big deal out of it. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I keep to myself about it.”

His mother struggled with health problems for years, but her death was unexpected at the time.

“We didn’t know she had cancer again until after she had died,” Burkhardt said. “No one, even the doctors, knew what was wrong with her. She was in the hospital for a month. She just died. We didn’t know it was coming. We didn’t make it to say good-bye.”

Patti, a teacher, lost her long battle at the age of 42.

“She had breast cancer twice and another type of cancer first. That first cancer was before I was born. She wasn’t supposed to be able to have any children, but she had three.

"She beat cancer three times and my aunt wrote to the Coca-Cola Company and told her story. My mother carried the torch in Cumberland, Md., before the Olympics at Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002.”

So it is not hard to understand that Burkhardt is a little uncomfortable in dealing with Friday night’s soccer match with USC Upstate which will be held Friday at 7 at the Lipscomb Soccer Complex. The game is one of five being played in the conference this weekend as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Foundation in association with National Cancer Awareness Month.

“I’m up and down about this,” Burkhardt said. “My step-mother, Darlene, had breast cancer too. She is a survivor. My step-mother, my sister and friends from high school walk for my mother as “Patti’s Light” team.

Dick’s Sporting Goods has also joined as a sponsor. The event kicks off a week of events on campus centering on breast cancer awareness.

Players will be wearing pink arm bands and tape. Coaches will wear pink polo shirts on the sidelines.

At halftime there will be a brief ceremony to celebrate cancer survivors and those who have died of cancer.

“I never forget about my mother,” Burkhardt said. “I’ll play this game for her. I try not to get caught up in it. I was always the strong one. I always tried to be there for my sister and brother.

“I’ve always held it in. I have tried to be strong for everybody else.”

Burkhardt was in the eighth grade when his mother died. He goes to visit her grave often especially on her birthday, May 1, and at Christmas. Usually he brings flowers. Once he brought a Christmas tree in celebration of her favorite holiday.

“I cut down a small pine tree and made her a Christmas tree,” Burkhardt said. “If there is snow on her stone I will clean it off. A lot of people find it difficult to go to her grave. I just stand there and talk to her.”

It is also not a surprise that Burkhardt’s strongest physical connection to his mother is often hidden away _ a sterling silver St. Michael’s medallion that he is not allowed to wear in games due to soccer rules. He can’t remember the exact date when he received the medal, representing the “Archangel”.

His mother presented it to him as a gift to commemorate his first communion. He admits he didn’t wear it much until after she died.

“I found it after she died and I decided I was going to wear it,” Burkhardt said. “I always wear it.”

The medallion has a story all its own. Actually, there are couple of them.

The medallion was taped to his ankle during a high school game between his Central Dauphin team and Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania. The rivalry is similar to the Nashville Predators playing the Detroit Red Wings or the Vanderbilt Commodores playing Tennessee in any sport.

Burkhardt scored the final two goals of the game to give Central Dauphin the win. He was wearing the medallion in his sock. Halfway through the game he realized he had lost it.

After the game ended his father, Karl, organized a search. It started with Tyler’s family and teammates and then the Cumberland Valley players and fans joined in. After almost 45 minutes of search it could not be found.

The next day Tyler’s aunt , Michelle Burkhardt, returned to field with her four sons for a morning search. After fruitless hours of searching, Michelle looked to the sky and asked Patti for guidance. Shortly after that plea her son, Spencer, found it.

Not long after the medallion was found, it went missing again. A fellow student had taken it out of Burkhardt’s locker in the physical education dressing room. It remained missing for several months, despite pleas from Burkhardt to students to return the medallion.

On the last day of classes his senior year Burkhardt made on last appeal. A student admitted he had stolen the medallion and still had it in his possession.

The usually unemotional Burkhardt had to use all of his strength to control his emotions after he heard the confession.

“Half of the school knew that I lost it and knew that I was looking for it,” Burkhardt said. “The kid brought it back to me the next day and skidded off. I didn’t touch him. I got it back. That was all that mattered.”

Once he was wearing it while riding a tractor. His chain got caught and snapped. He found the medal on the tractor’s deck. He has also lost it while swimming.

Burkhardt admits he is more than a little superstitious about the medallion.

“I had a real bad superstition that if I didn’t wear it I would get hurt,” Burkhardt said. “I twisted both ankles my junior year of high school and was out for a month with each ankle. I also broke my collarbone and then I had a car accident.

“All of that happened in a six-month period. Every time those things happened I didn’t have it on. I am kind of over that now. I have never been hurt when I have been wearing it. Whenever I wear it I feel like she is with me.”

The soccer coaching staff is requesting names of people to be remembered during the halftime ceremony. Survivors are also invited to attend the game. Contact Kevin Burk at kevin.burk@lipscomb.edu for more information.

Written by Mark McGee, Senior Publisher/Director of Media Relations.