The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 2, 2012

Francis Burke of St. John made the most of his short life, both on and off the football field

By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon

— Francis Burke was big and he was strong. In fact, he was strong enough that his younger brother, Tim, caught in predicament he couldn’t get out of, asked for somebody to go and find his sibling.

“He saved my life one day, he was so strong,” Tim Burke said. “I decided to make homemade wine. I bought a 30-gallon barrel and a 15-gallon barrel. I went to North East (Pa.) to get the barrels and I decided I’d roll them into my basement. I ended up pinned against the wall by the 30-gallon barrel. I’m pinned against the wall of my house and it’s killing me.

“I couldn’t budge the thing. They were asking me who to call. I told them to call my brother. He only lived a block down the street from me. I’m pinned against the cellar door and I can’t move the barrel an inch. My brother comes in and lifted it right up off of me. That was the end of my wine-making days. Thank God he was home.

“He was extremely strong. He could press 175 pounds with one arm.”

Francis Burke put that strength to good use in his days as an offensive tackle for St. John High School in the early 1960s. He will be posthumously inducted into the Ashtabula County Football Hall of Fame tonight at the annual Touchdown Club awards dinner.

“He would be deeply honored,” Tim Burke said. “He was never one to flaunt any honors he got. The last thing in the world he would have wanted was to call attention to himself.”

“I think he’d be very honored,” Francis Burke’s wife, Lynda Scott, said. “It sure would mean a lot to him.

“I guess I’d have to say it’s pretty emotional for all of us.”

 

Herald

When those who played between 1958 and ’61 remember their school’s battles with St. John, they remember Francis Burke for one thing.

“I remember playing against him,” Harbor graduate and fellow inductee Brian Gaines said. “He was a big boy.”

At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Burke would have been quite a specimen, even without some ability. But he was blessed in that regard, too.

“He was arguably the best lineman to ever come out of St. John,” Edgewood coach Dominic Iarocci wrote of Burke.

“Everybody looked up to him, he was so good,” Tim Burke said. “Even the seniors couldn’t believe it. He knocked them all down when he started.”

Francis Burke was so good that his son, Brian, who was only 2 years old when his dad died, heard stories about him all the time when he was growing up.

“The crazy one for me is I was in college,” Brian Burke said. “I was in college working for a photographer. We went to New Jersey for a graduation. A man asked my boss where we were from and he said Akron and the man said he was from Ashtabula, so he knew where that was.

“My boss called me over and introduced me and the man asked if I were Tim’s son. I told him no, I was Fran’s son. He told me had played football with my dad and that he was one hell of a man and a great football player. That’s pretty much what everyone said — he was a great guy and a hell of a football player.”

Brian Burke and his brother, Kevin, have spent their entire lives hearing people so those exact words about their father.

“From what I’ve been told, he was tenacious,” Brian Burke said. “He was a very hard worker. Football was his big sport. Out on the football field, people knew who he was.”

As an offensive tackle, Francis Burke enjoyed his role within the Hearalds’ offense.

“He was 100 percent a team player,” Tim Burke said. “He’d open holes up and do everything he could to get the backs through.”

There were times Francis Burke got to be the man running through the holes other had opened.

“Usually, he played lineman,” Tim Burke said. “We’d get down to about the 5 and sometimes he’d get to run the football. He was lights out when he carried the ball. He’d run over everyone. They’d give him the ball and it was like a bowling ball knocking down pins.

“He only did it in short-yardage situations, but he was hard to keep out of the end zone.”

Francis Burke was named first team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County as both a junior and senior.

 

Bad luck

Francis Burke earned a full scholarship from Auburn University out of the little school on Station Avenue.

“He was really excited,” Tim Burke said. “He was happy all his hard work and training paid off. A number of schools were after him.

“They gave him the best offer and it was a big school. He went down there and looked it over and fell in love with the place. I think that was the first time he was ever out of Ashtabula County. It was probably really something, stepping on a big campus like that.”

During summer break after his freshman year, fate struck and Francis Burke’s college football career came to an end. He was hit by a drunk driver walking on a bridge on Lake Avenue and his knee was ruined, his football career over.

“He took it really hard, but eventually he didn’t let it bother him,” Tim Burke said.

“I’ve never seen anybody in the world have worse luck.”

The accident left some wondering what might have been.

“The big thing I’ve always wondered is what would have happened had he not blown out his knee,” Brian Burke said. “Would he have stayed at Auburn? Would he have gone further?”

 

Tragedy

After the accident, Francis Burke went to work, following in his father’s footsteps, working on the ore boats that crossed Lake Erie.

“Our father was a captain on the lakes,” Tim Burke said. “All the time, when we were growing up, he was out on the lakes. Our father started when he was 14 and worked his way up to captain. He was captain for a long time. My brother just loved it.

“(Fran) worked his way up to wheelsman (with United States Steel Corporation). The next step would’ve been a mate’s job. But he fell in love and decided to get back on land.”

After marrying Lynda Brabender, Francis Burke decided the job was keeping him away from home a bit too much, so he quit and got a job working for Pittsburgh and Conneaut Dock Co.

“Having been the son of a career sailor, Fran said that it was going to be one or the other, a family or his job. So he quit because he wanted to be a full-time father.”

Eventually, Francis and Lynda Burke would have two sons, Brian and Kevin. But two years after Brian’s birth and less than a year after Kevin’s, on Jan. 30, 1974, Francis Burke died of head injuries suffered in a scaffold collapse.

“It was devastating,” Tim Burke said. I had just left his house the night before. I down in the Harbor at the hardware store on Broad Street. All these ambulances came roaring by going toward the docks. I told the owner of the store I’d talk to my brother and come back and tell him what happened.

“As soon as I got home, I got a call and they said I needed to go to the hospital. By the time I got to the hospital, he died.”

“It was devastating,” Scott said. “The most tragic part was that he had quit sailing to be with his family. He didn’t even tell me what he was doing at the time. I had no idea he was working on a scaffolding. It was a terrible shock, a terrible loss. He was well-loved by everybody.”

In a bit of luck, Francis Burke was home with his family the night before the accident and posed for a picture with his sons (which appears on the front page of today’s sports section with the first part of this story) and spent the night talking with his brother.

“I was going to Canada to go bear hunting and fishing,” Tim Burke said. “He was excited for me. When I left there that night, it was the last time I saw him.”

 

Void

Francis Burke was just 30 when he died. Brian Burke was just 2 and Kevin was a month away from his first birthday.

Brian Burke, who has two children, Brennen, 6, and Isabel, 4, and Kevin, who has three kids, Jana, 13, Kylie, 10, and Connor, 22 months, have shaped their own fatherhoods based on growing up without their own dad.

“I work eight hours away in New Jersey,” Kevin Burke said. “My daughter had a swim meet every Sunday. I worked nights and would get off Saturday, get in the car and drive home to watch the meet, take a short nap and drive back to work.

“I do everything I can to be around. Life is way too short and it goes by way too quickly to miss it.”

“The most important thing to me is being there for my children,” Brian Burke said. “I said when I had kids I wouldn’t sacrifice any time with them at all for work or anything else.

“I thank God for my grandfathers, who took up the mantel for my father and shaped who I am, but I’m not going ot give up time with my children for anything.”

By all accounts, Francis Burke would have reveled in being a grandfather.

“He sailed the Great Lakes and quit sailing when he got married and had kids,” Kevin Burke said. “He definitely would have been right up front. He would have been a big part of everything.”

“I don’t think he’d have been the type to pressure them,” Brian Burke said. “I think he would have been the biggest cheerleader. He’d have had a the biggest smile for his grandkids.”

“He’d have loved it,” Tim Burke said. “He would’ve been at every game, no matter what it took.

“He loved those kids. I have a son who’s Brian’s age and he would come down to the house all the time to get him to play with.”

Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.