The drive to Burlingame on Friday was similar to our previous trips back home. As you head into town from the east and the hustle and bustle of Kansas City into the sleepy confines of Small Town, America, the view rarely changes.
Past the city limits, just north of Highway 56, are the remnants of an old café, Jo’s Place, where my wife worked during high school. The old, red brick road covering two blocks of downtown is still there. It’s a road those of us who grew up in Burlingame spent hours on during our youth, circling the main drag after school and on the weekends.
Downtown Burlingame is one of the few areas in town marked by change. Several buildings are gone, including the defunct Osage County Chronicle building where I learned more about writing and newspapers from Kurt Kessinger than I have anywhere during my career as a journalist.
Across the street, the old grocery store and another café, both closed, continue to decay. For years, the town lacked energy.
As we walked from my in-laws’ house across a park on the north side of town, bright lights exploded into the sky, and the roads leading into the Burlingame High parking lot were flooded with red tail lights for blocks to the north and south.
It was quite a sight: Friday Night Lights in Burlingame. Hundreds of people lined up just off the track circling the football field, the stands full of purple and white, electricity in the air. All due to a football team that served as a shot of adrenaline for a community that needs – and deserves – a big winner.
“This is what we wanted, what we hoped we could do,” Robert Hutchins, a senior running back, said after the Bearcats’ loss to Hanover in an Eight-Man Division I semifinal. “It was amazing to see this town like this.”
Until Friday, I assumed the community was in a frenzy because its football team was 11-0, something that hadn’t happened since the 1972 team won the Class 1A state championship. After I met Hutchins, I realized the connection was much deeper than that.
As I walked off the field following Hanover’s 56-32 win in a game that was much closer than the score, I noticed Hutchins taking photos with several friends and classmates. I stopped briefly and said, “Robert, you had a great season. You should be proud.”
Tears welled in eyes already red and weary.
“I’m Ernie Webb,” I said.
“I know. Thank you for those stories you wrote,” he said. “And for that email you sent me.”
That didn’t register. I didn’t remember Hutchins at first, but I said “You’re welcome” and walked away after wishing him luck. Then it hit me: Was this the kid I exchanged emails with when he was an eighth-grader?
I turned around and said, “Robert, are you the one who emailed me after Ms. Day contacted me?”
As it turns out, this was the young man who I emailed several years ago. Twenty years earlier, the late Ms. Day, a wonderful art and science teacher, had been kind to a young man from Missouri who continued to root for his favorite college team despite living among Kansas and Kansas State fans.
Ms. Day contacted me years later and asked me to reach out to a student who needed a little guidance as a Missouri fan in the heart of Kansas. I readily sent him an email, never realizing the impact it had.
Nearly five years later, I introduced Robert to my wife and spoke with him for a few minutes, extremely impressed by his thoughtfulness and gratitude over the email, especially after he’d just finished his high school football career with a loss one game short of the state championship.
At that point, I realized why this community, so desperate for a big winner that at least one member of every graduating class from 1958 through 2015 was in the bleachers, loved this team so much: not only were these guys great football players, they were fine young men, many of whom will be back next season to make another run at the school’s first state title in 43 years.
The Bearcats lost on Friday night, but this team will always be a champion in the eyes of Burlingame.