Webb: Brenda Michelle Keller case has lasting impact, hope

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The Dover Federated Church looks much the same as it did 25 years ago.

Every night, I walk to every door and window in the house, often twice, checking to see that they’re locked. Sometimes, I look in closets and under the bed.

I’ve been doing this meticulously for five months now. It’s not a coincidence that I’ve followed this routine since the day I started researching 12-year-old Brenda Michelle Keller’s murder.

As I wonder through the house to make sure the boogeyman can’t get in, I often think of growing up in a time of innocence, when we lived in the country, miles from civilization, sleeping with your doors unlocked and windows open.

For several months this year, I couldn’t get the windows in our house to lock properly. It drove me crazy, especially after I read the police reports about the Keller case and began to research other notable cold cases. I sleep much easier now that they do lock properly.

On several of the nights when I did fall asleep, I’d wake up in a cold sweat, fear shooting through my body as I heard a creak in our aging duplex. It was one of the cats, of course, but that didn’t stop me from climbing out of bed, grabbing the nearest club-like item and searching the house.

It’s safe to say Brenda Michelle Keller’s case has had a profound impact. And I’m not alone.

Every person I’ve interviewed has been affected. All of them keep a closer eye on their children and lock their doors and windows.

Some are in therapy, still trying to cope 25 years later. Others are scared of men. Many check their house nightly for signs of danger.

After a nightmare in March that seemed so real I got out of bed and slept on the couch with all the lights on the main floor on, my concerned wife asked, “Are you sure you can do this?”

The answer, of course, was a resounding, “YES.” As I wrote a few years ago, I’ve visited Brenda at the Dover Cemetery every year for 20 years now. Fate placed me in this story, and I hope to do this amazing little girl and her family justice.

I haven’t shared what I’ve written about this case for many reasons. In time, I will. For now, here’s an excerpt:

Though some things have changed in the past 25 years in Dover, the church has the same homey look and feel. As patrons walk up concrete stairs and into the nearly century-old building, tables flank the left and right side of the entrance.

Resting on the table to the left are CDs of Bob’s recent sermons, Dover Federated Church business cards, programs for the day’s service and prayer lists. The table on the right holds a guest book, which confirms that almost all of the people visiting the church are there week-in and week-out.

Red carpet lines the floor on the first level of the church, with eight rows of stained wooden pews on either side of the center aisle. Behind the main rows of pews lie short pews less than 10 feet long, three rows deep.

A steep set of stairs inside the entrance leads to four more rows of pews on either side behind a balcony 15 feet above the first floor. A nursery stocked with decades-old toys is at the back of the second floor. The balcony overlooking the church is the technology hub of the building, with an impressive sound system and projector – the product of a long fundraising campaign – providing booming vocals as Bob, Tracy, and members sing, as well as vibrant imagery for PowerPoint presentations during Bob’s sermons.

Stained glass windows, recently refurbished after a large estate gift from a longtime churchgoer, shine on the east and west walls, which lead to a beautiful varnished wood stage featuring an aging pupil at the center. Two flags, including an American flag on the east side, sit on either side of the stage, with several microphones and an organ on the left side. A large wooden cross at the back of the stage dominates the south end of the church.

For 30 years, Bob has delivered God’s message in the church, weaving personal stories and humor into passages from the Bible. On Jan. 29, 2017, as part of an ongoing series, his sermon was about the book of Genesis, particularly the story of brothers Cain and Abel.

“Today, the beginning of sin as it gets out of control, the tragic story of Cain,” he said. “Starting in verse one, now the man had relations with his wife, Eve, this is right after the fall and sin, they’ve been kicked out of paradise. And she conceived and gave birth to Cain. Again, she gave birth, to his brother Abel.

“Now, here is beautiful moment in Adam and Eve’s life, they’ve had their first baby. Imagine the joy, and they think on God’s promise to send a deliverer. … Great hopes. That’s the point I’m trying to get to. There are always great hopes when you have a child.”

As Bob commonly does, he used a personal anecdote to enhance the sermon: “I’ll never forget working nights at a Quick Shop in Wichita. When I say nights, I mean midnight to eight in the morning. That was a crazy place, crazy time to work. Weird people come out in the night time. I’ll never forget this huge man comes walking in, tall, big, and he buys something, and I click on the register, and he hit it! ‘I’m sorry, I’m looking for nickels,’ he said. ‘I said, OK,” as the church erupted in laughter.

Bob continued with the story, telling the congregation that he eventually became friends with the man, sharing the joy he was experiencing after the birth of his first son in 1976.

“Soon, there was Abel,” he said. “But I think the joy was brief. And you start to think about it, the first baby born grew up to be a murderer. And the second born grew up to be the first victim. Think about that.”

Bob paused after that statement, scanning the church, where the Blakes sat in the back row and the author of this story, along with his family, sat 15 feet to the left of them.

“I thought about that when I was giving the sermon, how fitting it was that you were there,” he said later.

Bob continued to tell the story of Cain, who murdered his brother out of jealously. According to the Bible, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd, each offered sacrifices of their produce to God, and God favored the younger brother.

“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain he had no regard for his offering,” Bob said. “Why did he prefer one over the other? I think it was faith. At the heart of it, one was offering by faith. So, Cain was very angry, his countenance fell. He became depressed. And the Lord God said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up. And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door, and it desires for you.’”

Not long after, Cain killed Abel.

“So here, we see the terrible effects of sin, as it’s allowed to just grow along to the bitter end,” Bob said. “Sin begins in the human heart, and if unchecked, it works its way out, in our thoughts, in our words, and ultimately in our deeds. If you let it go, it gets the upper hand, and it results in terrible, terrible destruction.”

Bob couldn’t help but think about Brenda during this sermon, though he didn’t mention his daughter. He concluded the 30-minute message by saying, “Sin is like an acorn. It falls from an oak tree, and there it is lying on the ground. While it’s there and hasn’t taken root, a child can pick it up, but if it’s allowed to take root, eventually it becomes so large. God has his part to deal with sin. He gave us Jesus. He gave us the spirit, and then we have our part to walk in independence on the spirit, to walk in faith with God. So, don’t flirt with it, don’t dabble with it. Throw the bum out. Even here in this terrible, terrible story, we find hope. And that hope is through your life and through Jesus Christ.”

 

 

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Webb: Because they’re winners, Bearcats will learn from loss

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Burlingame finished the 2016 season at 11-1 and in the state semifinals for the second straight year. The Bearcats should be a state title contender next season.

There are few redeeming qualities about a loss. It stings. It makes you angry. It makes you sad. It can be devastating, especially when it ends your season and you have a four-hour bus ride home to think about it.

I can only imagine how Burlingame’s football team felt Friday night in Osborne as virtually nothing went right in the final game of a season in which virtually everything went right.

It reminded me of arguably Burlingame’s best team in the two decades leading up to this current group’s wildly successful run that has included back-to-back Lyon County League and district championships and trips to the Eight-Man I semifinals.

In 1991, the Bearcats had a team that many believed could make a deep run in the playoffs. Six games into the season, much of that hope had faded during a 2-4 start (keep in mind that the LCL was brutal in the early 1990s, featuring traditional powers Olpe, Waverly and Lebo).

By the time October rolled around, few had Burlingame getting through a district that included a good Alma-Wabaunsee team. The Bearcats rolled past Marais des Cygnes Valley and Lyndon to reach the .500 mark and set up a showdown in Alma for a trip to the playoffs.

That game, in late October, is one of the most memorable at Burlingame, partly because it was played during a snowstorm. My memories of that game include giant space heaters on the sideline, one of our assistant coaches (I’m talking about you, John Lujano) pacing the sideline in a short-sleeve shirt in sub-zero temperatures and a field on which only the yard lines were cleared.

Time and time again, a player broke into the clear, only to slip and fall on several inches of ice inside the yard lines. On one of the few times a player didn’t slip, Brandon Masters found just enough traction to burst up the middle and into the end zone in double overtime to clinch a playoff bid.

The weather was so awful that week that our opening-round game was postponed until a week later on a Saturday night. Awaiting Burlingame in the first round: Big, bad Waverly, a team that hammered the Bearcats during the regular season.

Memories of that game also are vivid. The coaching staff made a great decision, moving a bullish, powerful lineman to fullback to counter Waverly’s physical defense. Time and time again, said fullback barreled into linebackers, who bounced off him like pinballs.

Burlingame dominated the game, marching up and down the field with ease. Unfortunately, turnovers and penalties squelched many of those drives. Burlingame had the ball inside the 5 in the closing minute, only to be flagged for three straight holding calls. I also remember that a long field goal as time expired in regulation looked true until curving wide left by a foot.

What I remember the most is how we lost. On fourth-and-goal from the 1 in overtime, Masters bounced off left tackle and dove for the end zone. As the team stats geek, I was watching on the goal line. There is no doubt in my mind he scored. In fact, his upper body, with the ball, was in the end zone. The officials ruled he did not score. Waverly scored two plays later, gutting the team and town.

That was the first time I’d seen many of my classmates cry. Some of the toughest kids I knew were devastated. In many ways, it felt like it set the tone for the next two decades of football.

There aren’t many comparisons between the 1991 and 2016 Bearcats. The former scrapped its way into the playoffs and wasn’t considered a state championship contender. The latter rolled through the regular season like an F5 tornado, cutting a swath through a schedule loaded with playoff teams.

What the teams do have in common is that they brought the community together. Both of these runs, first in the early 1990s and now in the mid-2010s, came after long droughts. Friday Night Lights are no longer dim in Burlingame, they’re illuminating.

The 2016 team had loftier goals than getting back to the state semifinals. They expected to win the school’s first championship since 1972. They fell short, and that’s something they’re going to remember.

Almost all of these kids are back next season, and they’ll learn from this loss, because they’re winners.

 

 

 

The Daily Reporter: A ‘Hub’ of memories

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Longtime publisher Hub Meyer was tough, grizzled and a good mentor. He ran the Independence Daily Reporter from his early 20s until his death in 2014 at age 67. Hub also grew up in Independence.

SEVENTEEN YEARS. It’s been 17 years this month since I began my career in journalism. In many ways, it feels like yesterday. In many ways, it feels like a lifetime.

I’m less than a month away from turning 40 (mark July 3 on your calendars), and I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the past. I’m not doing what I expected to be doing … and I’m much happier than I ever imagined. My wife has a lot to do with that.

Though it’s been nearly 20 years, the memories of my first professional job interview are fresh. I had no idea Independence, Kansas, existed, let alone had a newspaper. I had no idea the town was 15 minutes away from where my father grew up in Coffeyville.

If not for my father, I still wouldn’t know much about Independence. Dad was worried I was going to sit around and do nothing for too long after I finished at Washburn in May 1999. In other words, taking a few weeks off wasn’t an option, even if I had my own place, paid my own bills and sort of had a plan (at least that’s what I told him).

At the time, dad lived in Warsaw, Missouri, but he was working at a craft show in Coffeyville. He stopped by after the show to visit and to drop off a business card he’d picked up from a photographer at the Independence Daily Reporter.

That was the only job lead I had after college. Of course, I wasn’t really trying at that point. I’d saved some money and planned to continue working part-time at the local Osage County Chronicle during the summer.

Somewhat begrudgingly, I called the Daily Reporter and spoke to the grizzled editor, an elder woman who had worked at the paper for more than 30 years. She knew little about sports, other than the paper needed a sports writer to help the sports editor.

In early June, I drove two hours south to Independence, arriving an hour early. I sat in my car down the street from the newspaper, trying to calm down. I ran as many questions through my head as I could, and I reviewed my portfolio for the 100th time.

The interview lasted all of 15 minutes. I don’t remember the questions. I remember meeting with the sports editor for 10 minutes. All told, less than 30 minutes. The editor offered me the job on the spot. Given the size of the town, I had a salary in mind. I figured the paper couldn’t meet it. I was shocked that the offer was more than expected: $385 a week ($20,000 a year). Ah, journalism.

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At age 23 during the Independence days. I had hair, and for some reason, an ugly Michigan sweatshirt.

I didn’t start for another month. My first day was July 6. The sports editor was on vacation, which wasn’t a surprise. If you work in sports, you take time off in the summer. That hasn’t changed to this day.

I remember being humbled by my first task: writing short stories about tee-ball. My dream of writing columns for the Capital-Journal seemed about as realistic as marrying a prom queen (somehow, both happened years later).

It might have been a small-town setting, but in many ways, I’ve never had more fun than I did in my first job out of college. I certainly learned more at the Daily Reporter than I have in any job.

The summers moved at the pace of Billy Butler on a grounder to second base. We really didn’t have much to do in sports. For the first few weeks, I dutifully stayed until 5 p.m. Mercifully, the grizzled editor came up to me one afternoon and said, “You really should go home early in the summer. Trust me, we’ll make up for it.” I remembered that well when I was working 70 hours a week during the fall and winter.

That first summer in Independence was a blast. Once the section was finished in the morning (the Daily Reporter was an afternoon paper), I spent most of my time planning and working on our special football section. The theme was a common one in sports sections in 1999: football teams of the millennium.

Each of the 10 teams we covered in the area got not only a preview, but also a “team of the millennium” feature. Much of the research for those stories entailed digging through the archives to determine which team in the 1900s was the best for each school.

Keep in mind this was 1999. The Internet had arrived, but it wasn’t as prevalent. The Daily Reporter wasn’t even online at the time (and wasn’t, amazingly, until 2015). So, when I say digging through the archives, I mean digging through the archives.

The sports editor, Brian Thomas, still a sports editor and now an icon in the region, and I spent most of July and August in the paper’s storage room. The bound archives were not organized. They were stacked on top of old desks, buried on and behind newspapers, a complete and utter mess. It was the dried ink and faded yellow paper version of “American Pickers.”

Among the characters I met at the first job was the longtime publisher, Hub Meyer. To say Hub was old school would be to say Craig’s List hurt newspapers. He was blunt. He was honest. He absolutely loved the news.

Hub began working at the Daily Reporter when his father, the publisher, died in the early 1970s. He was the publisher until his death in 2014. I had not seen Hub since I left in 2000, but I will never forget his last words to me: “Ernie, you did a really good job here, and you’re a talented guy. I expect you do really well. The best of luck to you.”

I worked in newspapers for 11 years. Those words are the ones I remember the most to this day. I also know that in 11 years of working at newspapers, I got bonuses twice. Once was at the Daily Reporter, the smallest paper I worked at.

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Hub was proud of the football tab. He also knew it’d make money.

What I also remember about Hub, usually short on praise, is how he reacted when Brian and I finished the football tab. He loved that tab more than we did. He also smiled like The Grinch when he was done reading it. I realized why the next day when I saw a bin of football tabs in the front office for $2 each. They sold out in a week.

All these years later, I think about those first few months in Independence often. I think about my late-night jogs past old, cozy houses on weathered, cracked sidewalks. I think about climbing on top of a desk and chair in a musty, stoic storage room to grab the June 1912 editions of the Daily Reporter. I think about how dazzled I was reading box scores in those papers dotted with names like Cobb, Ruth and Gehrig.

I made a little more than $20,000 in my 14 months in Independence, but I gained a lifetime of memories.

Here’s to a new face

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Me during the Washburn days interviewing historian Manisha Sinha.

 

After more than six years of the same format, “The blog about everything,” it was time for a facelift.

As the final project for my “Promotions Writing” class in graduate school this semester, I’m building a public relations campaign to promote my capstone: a few chapters in books I plan to write once I’ve earned my master’s degree. You can read more about that on my author’s page on Facebook.

Don’t worry. Those of you who love to read snarky blogs about sports and (I hope) inspiring posts about fitness will still get your fix. But much of the focus of this blog over the next several months is going to be on my classwork.

As for the books: One will be about Brenda Michelle Keller, the 12-year-old girl who was murdered in tiny Dover nearly 25 years ago (My goodness … has it really been that long); the other about my father, who has overcome a plethora of obstacles to teach his sons and grandchildren thousands of wonderful life lessons.

Another reason for the shift in blog: accountability. I’ve been talking about writing a book for a long time. I’ve been considering one about my dad for several years now, but not until recently had I considered writing about Brenda.

Why now do I want to write about Brenda? I blogged about that in October. A quick summary: I never met Brenda, but I have always been drawn to this story. I started visiting her gravesite in the Dover Cemetery in the mid-1990s, feeling I needed to be there, that we would have been friends had this hideous crime not occurred. We also shared mutual friends, including best friends. After years of thinking about this case, it finally hit me that I need to write about it.

A lot of work remains. I have no idea if the relevant parties have any interest in talking about this case. I know the murderer has never spoken to the media. I haven’t decided how to approach the family. But I’ve always wondered why more wasn’t written about Brenda.

Unfortunately, bad things like this happen all the time. That doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Hopefully, I can help.

Webb: The good and bad of Pinkel’s tenure

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Gary Pinkel retires from Missouri with five division titles and 10 appearances in bowl games, including two Cotton Bowls.

A few minutes into the second half, I did something I almost never do during Missouri games: I turned off the radio and TV and stopped paying attention. All I could think was “Gary Pinkel deserves better than this.”

It was far from a glorious home finale for a man who resurrected a football program that resembled a Football Championship Subdivision team just 15 years ago. Just two years removed from contending for a national title, Pinkel likely won’t even be coaching in a bowl game during his final season before retirement.

There have ups and downs – more of the former – during his tenure in Columbia. Here’s a look at the biggest wins and worst losses:

BIGGEST WINS

daniel1. Missouri 36, Kansas 28 (Nov. 25, 2007): A dream season for both programs culminated in a showdown at Arrowhead Stadium with the No. 1 ranking on the line. This remains the most electric sporting event I’ve attended.

On a frigid night, Chase Daniel shredded the Jayhawks for 361 yards and the Tigers built a 21-point lead before hanging on to clinch a spot in the Big 12 championship game. The image of Todd Reesing walking off the field with grass and sod wedged in his helmet will always be a favorite for Tigers fans.

2. Missouri 28, Texas A&M 21 (Nov. 30, 2013): Some will argue the Georgia win that season was bigger, but the Tigers secured a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game with a victory over Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

The go-ahead touchdown run by Henry Josey, two years removed from a horrific knee injury, was the icing on the cake.

3. Missouri 41, Nebraska 24 (Oct. 11, 2003): Twenty-five years. That’s how long it’d been since Missouri beat Nebraska. During that span, the Huskers annually humiliated the Tigers. Nebraska also owned arguably the most devastating loss at Mizzou for decades in the infamous flea-kicker game in 1997.

This game ended years of frustration and catapulted the Tigers to their first bowl bid since 1999. It is one of the games that served as the foundation for Pinkel’s program and snapped Missouri’s 45-game losing streak against top-10 teams.

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4. Missouri 36, Oklahoma 27 (Oct. 23, 2010): Another electric night at Faurot Field, as the Tigers knocked off the top-ranked Sooners for the first time since 1998 behind Blaine Gabbert, Jerrell Jackson, Aldon Smith and Gahn McGaffie.

McGaffie’s return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff is the loudest I’ve heard Memorial Stadium. Storming the field with my 65-year-old father will always be one of my fondest memories.

5. Missouri 41, Georgia 26 (Oct. 11, 2013): This game announced the Tigers’ arrival in the SEC. One season after an awful debut in its new conference, Mizzou rolled into Athens and floored the seventh-ranked Bulldogs.

The victory was one of several memorable wins in a 12-2 season that include an SEC East title and Cotton Bowl win.

WORST LOSSES

1. Troy 24, Missouri 14 (Sept. 9, 2004): Coming off a bowl season and anchored by star quarterback Brad Smith, it looked like the Tigers had arrived. They led this game 14-0 and appeared to be on cruise control when the Trojans, led by future Pro-Bowler DeMarcus Ware, took over and rolled to a 24-14 win.

Missouri never recovered, blowing big leads against Oklahoma State and Kansas State, coughing up a lead at Texas and wilting against arch-rival Kansas at home. The Tigers lost five straight games and finished 5-6, putting Pinkel on the hot seat.

alg-oklahoma-wins-jpg2. Oklahoma State 28, Missouri 23 (Oct. 11, 2008): A year after contending for a national title, the Tigers hosted Dez Bryant and the Cowboys at Faurot Field. The Tigers marched down the field on the opening possession but failed to score a touchdown despite having a first-and-goal at the 1.

Rather than go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal inside the one, Pinkel elected to kick a field goal. It zapped the crowd of its energy and the offense of its confidence. The Tigers never recover, enduring a beating at Texas the next week and choking late against Kansas before being routed in the Big 12 championship game by Oklahoma.

3. Navy 35, Missouri 13 (Dec. 31, 2009): One of the most embarrassing losses during Pinkel’s tenure, as the Midshipmen dominated a Missouri team that appeared to have no interest in playing in the Texas Bowl.

The coaching staff’s refusal to adjust to a Navy defense that dared the offense to run was maddening to watch. The Tigers felt snubbed to be playing in the Big 12’s lowest-tier bowl, but did nothing to back it up.

baggett4. South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (Oct. 25, 2013): The only blemish on an amazing regular season in 2013, as the Tigers coughed up a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter, allowed a game-tying touchdown on fourth-and-long in overtime and missed a chip-shot field goal for the tie in the second overtime.

To its credit, Missouri rebounded to win four straight games and reach the SEC championship game.

5. Texas Tech 24, Missouri 17 (Nov. 6, 2010): A classic case of letting one loss become two. One week after Nebraska ended their undefeated, the Tigers blew a 17-3 lead in Lubbock in a loss that ultimately cost them a spot in the Big 12 championship game.

Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy barely touched the ball after combining for 170 yards and two long touchdowns runs on nine carries in the first quarter, even though Gabbert was 12 of 30 for 95 yards.

 

Dreaming big in Burlingame

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My stepson, wife and in-laws at Saturday's Eight-Man Division I state quarterfinal.

My stepson, wife and in-laws at Saturday’s Eight-Man Division I state quarterfinal.

A few days into our tenure as members of the Burlingame school board, my best friend and I attended a welcome-back-to-school barbecue for faculty and staff. One of the first people we spoke with that steamy August day in 1997 was a new history teacher and football coach with big dreams.

As an alumnus and supporter of the Bearcats, I was curious what this new coach had in mind for a football program coming off a winless season. So, I asked him what his goals and expectations were for the season.

“To go 13-0 and win a state championship,” he said.

Steve and I looked at each other and literally laughed. A few years later, that teacher/coach was gone.

The highs have been few and far between in the nearly 20 years since. Going into the 2014 season, Burlingame had not had a winning season since 1990. From 1992 to 2014, the Bearcats had one playoff team, a 5-5 squad that slipped into the playoffs as the district runner-up.

To say Burlingame was in a drought would be an understatement. Imagine walking through the Sahara for two decades with a shot glass of water to hold you over. The only time the Bearcats made news was during a long losing streak. A feature story about the team ending a losing streak happened at least twice in local papers.

Friday Night Lights. Dreaming big. Daring to believe. These things amounted to a leprechaun riding into town on a unicorn while sipping from the Holy Grail.

After years of hopelessness and frustration, that began to change in 2014. A group of kids I’d been hearing about for years welcomed a young, energetic coach to town. It didn’t take long for the community to fall in love with football again.

The Bearcats didn’t make the playoffs in 2014, falling a touchdown short of ending a 10-year drought during a 6-3 season. As it turns out, they were building the foundation.

The kids bought in, the coach’s energy was contagious. Big crowds started traveling to road games again, just as they’d done during a three-year run in the early 1990s that included three straight district championships.

Finally, it all came together in 2015. The Bearcats stampeded through the regular season, going 9-0 with a series of blowouts to win league and district championships, the latter the first in 24 years.

Last week, Burlingame ended one of the longest playoff droughts in the state, knocking off a tough Rock Hills team 40-18 to improve to 10-0. It was the school’s first playoff win in more than 15,000 days (43 years).

Many of us traveled to Burlingame’s first quarterfinal game since 1972 on Saturday, driving through scenery straight out of “Children of the Corn” to watch the Bearcats’ fight off Central-Burden in southeast Kansas on their way to sub-state, one win away from the state championship game.

As a stringer for the Capital-Journal, I got to cover the game in Burden and write a story that wrote itself. For the first time in a generation, they’re dreaming big in Burlingame.

Brenda Michelle Keller: Life beyond death

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Brenda Michelle Keller

Something drew me to Dover, Kansas. On a frigid day in 1996, I jumped into my car and drove west from Burlingame, traveling through Harveyville on my way to tiny Dover, located about 10 miles southwest of Topeka.

In a conversation a few days before, Brenda Michelle Keller’s name was mentioned. It was a name most of us knew. Brenda died on Oct. 19, 1991, the victim of abduction and murder. She was only 12 years old and was riding her bike home on one of the country roads I drove along four years later.

It was a shocking story in a small town that exemplified the “that would never happen here” adage. Though I didn’t know Brenda, many of my friends did, and all of them were devastated. By all accounts, she was smart, sweet and innocent. She also was cherished by her family, including her father, the pastor at the community’s church.

After hours of driving around Dover, I ended up in the town’s cemetery. It was not difficult to find Brenda. Her gravesite is marked with a beautiful headstone on the east (back) side of the cemetery. On my first visit, it was surrounded by flowers, trinkets and 100 Grand candy bars (her favorite).

I was 19 at the time, and it was one of the more moving moments of my life. I thought about the grief her family felt. I thought about how much care her loved ones took in maintaining her resting place. I thought about the animal, a 22-year-old man sentenced to 40 years without parole, who brutalized her before ending her life. I thought about the court system, which erroneously released the murderer to his uncle, a Dover resident, shortly before the crime.

In the 20 years since, I’ve visited Brenda numerous times. Sometimes I leave a rose. Sometimes I leave a 100 Grand candy bar. Sometimes I just stop by. Sometimes I wonder if we would have connected and been friends later in life.

This is the first time I’ve written about my trips to Dover, largely because I couldn’t process it myself. Brenda Michelle Keller died at age 12, but she will live forever.