I was saddened to hear the news of the passing of Bryan Burwell. The Post-Dispatch columnist died of cancer Thursday morning at the age of 59.
The rest of the day became a time to reflect on this influential person in my life. Bryan’s love for sports sparked our first conversation in 2002 and we had countless talks — and laughs — for years after that.
1) I first met Bryan at Rams training camp in Macomb, Ill. It was his first week on the job at the Post-Dispatch. Like most people in our business, I was familiar with Bryan Burwell the writer, but also knew him as a TV personality, most notably on HBO’s “Real Sports.” I let him know my respect for his in-depth profile a few years earlier on Tank Black, the former sports agent who was accused of giving cash to college players. Instead of a quick “thanks” and a handshake, Burwell sat down with me and went into great detail about his research and interaction with Black. About 30 minutes later, we were still talking sports, St. Louis, Detroit and New York (two of his other writing stops) and Baltimore/Washington D.C. (where he first worked/his hometown). We clicked immediately and had many conversations through the years.
2) Bryan’s love for sports was his calling card. An outstanding journalist, he could have covered any field with the highest integrity. But it was his love for the games and his respect for the people involved in them that kept him in sports. Burwell could work a room with the best of them. He had great relationships with coaches, players and other members of the media. We would often travel to the same events and we’d have dinner, whether it was a Rams, Mizzou or NCAA trip. The all-timer: Burwell and P-D colleagues Bernie Miklasz and Vahe Gregorian, Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star, Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post and Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com — at the 2009 NCAA Regional in Glendale, Ariz. (It was Missouri’s run to the Elite Eight.) The stories were amazing and Burwell’s unmistakable laugh filled the air. I didn’t want the night to end.
3) In 2003, the night before the Steelers hosted the Rams, a group of us went out for dinner in Pittsburgh and we jumped into a couple of cabs. As we arrived at the restaurant, P-D writer Jim Thomas, who rode with Burwell, opened the taxi’s door and the sound of laughter emerged from inside the cab. According to Thomas, their conversation with the cab driver went something like this:
Cab Driver: “How are you fellas tonight?”
Thomas and Burwell: “Great, thanks.”
Cab Driver, looking at Burwell in the rear view mirror: “You look familiar.” (Pauses) “Hey, I know you! You’re Bryan Birdwell!”
Naturally, we called Bryan “Birdwell” for years. And as always, Bryan laughed that hearty laugh — every time JT told the “Birdwell” story. The truth was, we were all impressed that Bryan was recognized the first hour we set foot in Pittsburgh. Of course he was.
4) Bryan and I never hosted a radio show together, but there’s no doubt we had a chemistry in our many sports talks in airports, restaurants, media rooms. A few times, he and co-host Frank Cusumano would invite me to KFNS (590 AM) to sit in for an hour. I was always struck by Burwell’s quick wit. It was totally underrated. He could be self-deprecating but never hesitated to bring a little heat your way, just to see how much you could take. It was all in good fun and it made him unpredictable. I always appreciated that about his radio work and his many appearances on ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” on Sunday mornings.
5) As a columnist, Burwell wrote from the heart and I believe influenced many young writers, more than we’ll ever know. And you didn’t have to agree with him to appreciate him. When he was at USA Today, Burwell was one of the first to call for coach Bob Knight’s firing at Indiana, back in 1994. I was a freshman at IU at the time and I remember thinking: “Who does this guy think he is?” That’s the thing, though: Burwell didn’t think that way. He wrote what he felt was right and he followed through with facts and explanations. He didn’t worry about the reaction. Right up until the end. Burwell’s final column for the Post-Dispatch revealed the secret discussions in St. Louis to build a new stadium downtown that would keep the Rams from moving to Los Angeles. It even detailed a location (just north of Lumiere Place), yet some questioned his optimism at the time. It wasn’t long before Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced he had appointed a task force to look into the stadium issue. Burwell had given us a heads up that the candle was still burning. I don’t know if a stadium will be built, but if it happens, here’s a proposal for its design team: The Bryan Burwell Memorial Press Box.
Tom Ackerman is Sports Director at KMOX.