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Even illness doesn't dim his devotion to Blue Jays

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fourteen months ago, Don Burdick, 54, lay in a hospital bed near death. He had undergone eight hours of surgery to rebuild his cancerous bladder, then had another operation within hours to stop hemorrhaging.

Burdick went through 30 units of blood.

But during the moments that he awakened from drug-induced sleep, Burdick only wanted to know one thing:

What was the Hopkins vs. Virginia lacrosse score?

He didn't want visitors. Didn't care much for pain-killing drugs or the intravenous tubes in his arm. Forget water.

What was the Hopkins score, damn it?

A week later, after he was moved from intensive care into a regular room, Burdick only spoke to visitors during breaks in the Hopkins-North Carolina game.

Hopkins fans have always been a little abnormal. They are more knowledgeable than most, which is why some of them are arrogant, smug, craggy, and wear pants like Virginia and Duke alumni with those goofy little alligators or parrots on them.

And then there is Burdick.

Please, please, don't call him a fan. Fans desert teams or jump on bandwagons. Hopkins lacrosse is one of Burdick's passions.

Twenty-one months ago, 12 days after retiring from 31 years as a public school teacher in Baltimore City, Burdick was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder.

Having already exceeded some survival estimates but feeling strong enough to teach a class this semester, Burdick this spring targeted two things he would like to see happen in the coming weeks; one is to watch his son, Gregory, get married on June 2, and the other is for Hopkins to win a national championship.

Hopkins (8-3) will play Notre Dame (13-1) today at the University of Maryland in an NCAA quarterfinal game. The final four is set for May 28 at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J.

"I've already told my doctors that regardless of what happens, they must keep me alive until then," said Burdick.

You have to admire Burdick's spirit and enthusiasm for life. He has chosen Hopkins lacrosse as a way of sustaining, and the Blue Jays don't mind a bit. They have gone through a similar situation.

Back in 1997, Hopkins player Chris Gardner died of cancer. Since then, Hopkins players visit the Johns Hopkins children's cancer center once or twice a month. The Blue Jays play a game in Gardner's honor every year.

Now they have bonded with Burdick. He has a special parking permit for games. They've autographed a hat and shirt. One of Burdick's favorite players is attackman Bobby Benson, who, along with two freshman players, had lunch with Burdick earlier this year.

"When some people found out about Don and his illness, it kind of struck close to home," said Ernie Larossa, Hopkins' sports information director. "He has said that this is eventually going to beat him, but anything to help brighten his day, we're glad to help out."

This is not a win-one-for-the-Gipper request. Burdick would not impose such pressure. This is about tradition and loyalty. His grandfather, Alfred Burdick, was a Hopkins doctor. His father, Kenyon, attended Hopkins before dropping out. Both Burdick and his son have earned degrees from the university.

Don Burdick never played the game, but he caught the Hopkins lacrosse bug a long time ago.

He has Hopkins mugs lined along his basement wall from homecoming games. He has been to about 25. Each year, he invites former students, teachers and friends to a game. One year he took 30 people with him. Until he became sick, he seldom missed a home game, and saw most this year - sometimes against doctor's orders.

"He is very opinionated. He has an opinion on everything. You don't want to get into an argument with him, especially about politics," said Gary Levin, 56, a retired Baltimore City and County school teacher who has known Burdick since 1968. "He is the self-appointed watchdog of the program. That team may cause him some anguish, but he'll never leave them. It's kind of like a parent and a child. Don won't hesitate, though, to call the athletic department and tell them what strategy he liked or didn't like."

Burdick is a quiet hero who has never gotten deserved recognition. Anyone who teaches in Baltimore City should get combat as well as regular pay. Burdick often went beyond the call of duty. A history teacher, he would take his classes to the Soviet Union. He would join Levin and other teachers to take on some students in a weekly basketball game earlier in his career. He was a traditionalist who was gruff with his students, hated computers, but at the same time caring and accessible. He volunteered as a referee and recreation center leader at Gardenville. In the latter part of his career, his teaching duties took him to homes and hospitals to tutor ill children. He also taught college courses for 20 years.

Even now, there is a high energy that exudes from his body. Former students still call him for advice. The man has the gift of being a people person.

"He is a big-time Hopkins fan, but a special person," said Loyola College coach Dave Cottle, who attended Northern High, where Burdick once taught. "He always had kids around him. It wasn't like it was a cult following, but he really cared about kids after school."

Levin said: "I betcha about 60 people call him a week. Kids have always adored him. He's a little eccentric, and says what is on his mind, but I've always envied the relationship he has with students."

Burdick was about to enter a well-deserved retirement nearly two years ago. A part-time travel agent, he and his wife of 32 years, Carol, were going to do some extensive traveling. But what was initially believed to be possible kidney stones turned into cancer, which covered his bladder like a glove.

Burdick had rarely been sick before. He retired with 250 sick days. He recently underwent more chemotherapy after new tumors were found.

"The last two years have been miserable, but I'm still here," said Burdick. "I have shed my share of tears. Of course, I'm [ticked] off about this. But you have to deal with it, take what life gives you. I was just unlucky enough to have this hand of cards dealt to me."

Burdick found out recently that he'll have to have another surgery soon, a fifth one for a hernia. But he won't schedule that one until after the final four and his son's marriage. He wants to see Hopkins win a title, its first since 1987.

And if Hopkins doesn't win one this year, Burdick won't be overly disappointed. He likes Hopkins first-year coach Dave Pietramala and the job he is doing.

So much in fact, that Burdick has already requested that when he dies, donations be sent to a local cancer research center, the Jane Goodall Foundation, and Hopkins men's lacrosse program.

"He is a very gregarious man, a tough man who enjoys life," said oncologist Nancy Dawson. "Everybody at the hospital knows him. He visits everybody, always thinking about other people. And he loves Hopkins lacrosse."

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