When my family moved to Uniondale, Long Island in 1977, I decided to play football for Turtle Hook Junior High School. One of my first encounters on the field was practice against a player by the name of Gerard Burnett.
Gerard was such an intimidating figure. At the age of 14, he was already well over 6 feet tall. His size and stature made it a natural for him to play offensive and defensive guard in football. Practices under Turtle Hook head coach John Phelan were hard enough, but attempting to penetrate Gerard’s side of the offensive line was virtually impossible.
As an interior lineman, Burnett dominated his position, allowing very few sacks by the opposing team. In the 1977 season, Turtle Hook went 5-1. He went on to play varsity football at Uniondale High School and was also a shot putter for the Track and Field team.
But despite his size and ability on the gridiron, off the field Burnett was a gentle giant. His smile would light up the room and he would talk about all things without any hangups. In 1978, classmates voted Gerard one of the friendliest students in Turtle Hook.
Since graduating from high school, Gerard attended C.W. Post College. He took over the family business from his father, Carl Bennett Funeral Home in Hempstead, NY. It was his gentle demeanor that allowed individuals who lost a loved one to be treated with respect and kindness. In addition, he became an ordained minister. I found video of his first sermon given a few years.
On Friday, Gerard Burnett lost his battle with cancer at the young age of 48.
Prior to his death, Gerard and I were able to re-connect with the help of Facebook. We were able to correspond with each other and talk about those days on the football field. He mentioned he was looking forward to attending our high school reunion this August. Unfortunately, his illness made it impossible.
Though my high school years weren’t very memorable, I realized I needed to heel some old wounds by confronting my past. By doing so, I could move on with my life. It had been 30 years since I graduated, and that was long enough for me to be away. It’s also a way for me to finish what Gerard wanted to do, to be with his classmates.
R.I.P. Gentle Giant!