Friday Night Lights A-Blazing

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It’s cold, rainy, and a few weeks until Christmas. Here’s one to make you feel great this holiday season. It’s the story of my college classmate Michael Burnett, the particulars of which I’ve been following on Facebook, and it’s a story of friendship, family,and football. I have not fact-checked the details, nor have I wordsmithed my sentences. It’s such an awesome story, I really wanted to get it out there as fast as I could, and before the big game.

Mike and I both played basketball in college, there was a fair amount of social overlap between the men’s and women’s teams, and that wasthe context in which I met and knew Mike. He was a great guy, a hard worker, nice, friendly, laid back, quick to smile,and quicker to laugh. Fast-forward 25 years, to our 25th reunion; maybe I had seen Mike once since graduation, a brief exchange at another reunion. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter. In any case, I reconnected with Mike over drinks at the Mere Point Yacht Club, met his family, and even though so much time had passed, it took no time at all to remember that when you are in Mike’s presence, you’re in the presence of one of the good guys.

In the course of the catching up that night and over the weekend, I learned about Mike’s non-traditional life trajectory after college; he spent time as a lawyer and carpenter before making his professional home as a history teacher and football coach. I admired him for his commitment to finding his way and embracing his passion, and I sort of envied his happiness.

The weekend ended with rekindled friendships, fueled and facilitated by social media. And that was how I learned about a tragedy Mike experienced not long after reunion, the death of his best friend and assistant coach, a man by the name of Adam Fortune.The publicity around Adam’s death is where I learned more about Mike’s remarkable story. If the story of Mike Burnett and the Tuscarora Huskies were a movie, you might deem the plot a bit of a stretch. And that’s what makes the story so good, why I need to tell it, and how grateful I am that I know Mike.

Mike is a smart guy, went to law school, got a Master’s Degree, worked in litigation, and ultimately pursued a career as an educator,working on both coasts before settling in Virginia. He was a very successful coach in his first four years at Broad Run High School, turning around a 1-9 team and compiling a 43-6 mark, leading the team to back-to-back undefeated seasons and Virginia AA Division 4 Championships. In January 2010, a month after the second championship, Mike announced that he was leaving Broad Run to take on the roles of Social Studies Department Chair and Head Football Coach at Tuscarora, a new school set to open in Leesburg that Fall.

While the decision wasn’t an easy one, it was the right one for Mike, for both personal and professional reasons. It was also the right decision for three of Mike’s assistants, who trusted in his vision and leadership enough to follow him, and to stay with him. When Tuscarora opened its doors, it had a full Varsity football schedule; Mike and his staff guided the inexperienced and senior-less team to an inaugural 5-5 season. The next three seasons saw records of 9-3,10-2, and 9-3. In four years, at a new school, Mike had an impressive record of 33-13.

This summer, Tuscarora was touched by the tragedy referenced earlier, the death of Mike’s best friend and assistant coach, Adam Fortune. He had been by Mike’s side for eight seasons as his defensive coordinator, and in July—while vacationing with family—died of cardiomyopathy. He was 37.

Tragedy has the unique power of being able to bring a community together or to shatter it, often depending on who and what is leading the community’s response. In this case, a unique combination of Adam’s legacy and Mike’s leadership galvanized Tuscarora. In a season dedicated to the memory of Coach Fortune, the Huskies finished 10-0, playing its home games in astadium that was renamed “Fortune Field.” The team lived the words of their departed, beloved coach: “Don’t strive to be good. Strive to be great.”

Which brings us to today, with the Tuscarora Huskies having won four playoff games, including one against Broad Run, preparing for their next opponent. The offense is led by the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year, Noah Reimers. And the team is led by my college classmate, Mike Burnett. On Saturday, at the University of Virginia, the team will be playing for Adam Fortune and the 5a state championship. I’ll be rooting for the good guys, and enjoying the reminder of how important it is to pay attention to what really matters. And as hokey asit’s sure to sound, no matter the outcome of the game, Mike Burnett and his team are ending this season on top.

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