MARTINSVILLE, Ind. — Gunner Burnam was an old soul in a young body. He liked nothing better than kicking around with his Grandpa Mike — fishing, swapping stories, chopping firewood and hunting duck and deer.
He had more power tools than most men, and he could operate a backhoe at the age of 10. Even then, he was 10 going on 50, his dad said.
Hard work didn’t scare him. Cancer did though; cancer scared him even if he tried to hide it.
Gunner was 13 — a strapping 6-foot, 160-pound football player — when he got sick. It started with a little weakness in his left arm, then fatigue, then a stumble here and there.
Giving back: Carmel teen survives brain tumors and stroke; now she will give back to Riley before another risky surgery
Half century of service: It’s hard to imagine how many lives this woman has touched over 50 years
Two days before Christmas 2016 came the diagnosis: DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma). Four words that would not make sense to his parents, Tim and Jennifer Burnam. How could this be happening to their strong, independent, active son?
It was the same kind of brain cancer that had killed Mount St. Joseph University basketball player Lauren Hill in 2015. She was 19.
“It’s the world’s worst cancer,” said Jennifer Burnam. “It’s a death sentence.”
A child diagnosed with DIPG today faces the same prognosis as a child diagnosed 40 years ago, according to the Michael Mosier Defeat DIPG Foundation. There is still no effective treatment. Many patients die within a month of diagnosis; some live for a year. But no one survives. DIPG accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all brain tumors in children.
Within a month of his diagnosis, Gunner was in a wheelchair. Gradually, he lost the use of his limbs and the ability to speak. He never lost his heart, though, his parents and friends will tell you.
“He handled it like a real man,” said best friend Daithan Schoolcraft, an eighth-grader at John R. Wooden Middle School in Martinsville. “Never complained about anything; that’s what really got me.”
A real man. Gunner was 14. He died at his Martinsville home early on the morning of Sept. 15, nine months into his fight.
Gunner had a lot of unfinished business. What 14-year-old doesn’t? There were fish to catch, football games to play, gardens to plant. And there was an Eagle Scout project to complete.
That’s why Gunner’s story doesn’t end with his death. On Friday night, Gunner’s parents were on hand, along with members of Troop 229 in Martinsville, to receive the Boy Scouts of America Spirit of the Eagle Award on their son’s behalf.
Spirit of the Eagle is a posthumous award recognizing the contributions of Scouts younger than 21 who have died prematurely.
Gunner grew up with the Boy Scouts. His uncles were Scouts, achieving the highest rank of Eagle Scout, and his grandparents Mike and Donna Mullin were Scout leaders, so he couldn’t wait to join as a little boy.
Like everything else in life, Gunner was all in — first as a Cub Scout, then a Boy Scout. He loved the outdoor activities, the badges and the camaraderie. He lived for the annual Scout camp in July.
He was a throwback to the 1800s, his dad said. No video games for this kid, who loved nothing more than being outdoors.
Before he got sick, Gunner was already thinking about his Eagle Scout project, years before most boys complete it.
It was a simple idea, really. Collect leftover food from the annual fall camping bash and use it to feed hungry families in Gunner’s community.
You see Gunner had another side to him. Besides the strong, adventurous, funny kid his friends and family knew, this was a young man who was driven to help others, Tim Burnam said, to be the light in someone else’s bad day.
That’s what John Wooden Middle School Principal Eric Bowlen remembers.
“The impact he had on the student body was impressive. Everybody liked Gunner. He could make you have a better day just by seeing him or thinking about him. He was always looking out for others,” said Bowlen, who shares Gunner’s story during convocations with students, borrowing from the poem “The Dash,” by Linda Ellis.
“The time between the date of birth and death for him was very short, but the impact he had in between was unbelievable,” Bowlen said. “He was the ultimate teammate. He was not a ‘me’ kid, he was a ‘we’ kid, which made him wise.”
Even during the worst of the teen’s illness, “That soul, that spirit, that zest for life was there all along.”
Gunner’s goal was to collect 500 food items for his Eagle Scout project. But he never got the chance. It was the people of Martinsville, a town of about 12,000 in Morgan County, who made it happen.
It started at the campground: A month after Gunner died, his family decorated a 55-gallon drum in patriotic colors and handed out fliers explaining Gunner’s food collection idea.
They filled that drum, but they weren’t finished. Back at home, Scout Troop 229 joined in, then word spread around town. “We loved Gunner, and we want to help,” residents told his mom. “The whole town knew Gunner and what a fantastic kid he was,” she said.
Soon, schools and businesses got involved. Families too. When it was over, Gunner’s project had collected 7,000 cans and boxes of food to be distributed over the holidays. Bowlen thinks they could have tripled that amount if they’d had more time.
“Unbelievable,” his dad said. “Overwhelming,” his mom said. The two are divorced but remain close and are raising their 11-year-old daughter, Courtney, together.
One carload of donations went to a family whose child was recently diagnosed with cancer. Area food banks accepted some as well, and WellSpring Center of Morgan County received a “massive amount for homeless families,” Jennifer Burnam said.
Burnam visited her son’s school last week, bringing a few of his favorite things — his football helmet (#55), his dirt bike helmet, his welding helmet and his Alabama Crimson Tide hat. She brought a football signed by his teammates, his work gloves and tiny replicas of the farm and construction machinery he loved.
“This is who Gunner is,” she said as she lined up his gear on a conference table. He loved it all, with one exception — the helmet he wore during radiation treatment.
“He wanted to destroy it, he wanted to shoot it with everything he had, run over it with a backhoe, blow it up.”
His mom didn’t let him do any of those things; she hid it from him. And now she holds onto it like she holds onto everything that reminds her of him. It keeps him close.
It was only her second visit to the school since Gunner died four months ago. It’s not easy. “He loved this school,” she said. “Gunner should be in one of these classrooms with the rest of the kids and he’s not.”
But it was on her first visit to the school after her son died when she learned he won’t be forgotten.
Principal Bowlen told her during that December visit that the school will be naming an award for Gunner.
The Gunner Burnam Mental Attitude Award will go to a football player who embodies the teen’s passion, attitude and strength of character. Each year, the name of a deserving student will be added to the 2-foot-by-4-foot plaque, which will share wall space with the likes of famed basketball coach and Martinsville native John Wooden and other local heroes.
“I felt so honored and proud when I heard what they’re doing,” Jennifer Burnam said.
“We’re the ones who feel grateful that you shared him with us,” Bowlen told her. “My goodness, what an impact.”
In the last few months of his life, Gunner never gave in to self-pity. On his birthday in July, his parents threw him a huge party and invited all of his friends. His mom remembers how he zipped around in his motorized wheelchair as friends popped M&Ms in his mouth.
That birthday was a gift in itself. Doctors didn’t think Gunner would live past March, but Jennifer said God had other plans.
“I know it was just so we could have the best memories of his birthday month.”
The days after were hard. Gunner was receiving hospice care at home.
Lifelong friend Matt Decker remembers that Gunner never complained. “He never said a word. He laughed and cut up. When you think you got it rough, you think of him. He had it rough.”
After Gunner died, his mom found out he had a lot of friends she had never met. The line to pay respects at the funeral home was long, in some cases hours long.
“He made people feel like he was their best friend.”
For all of her son’s friends — at school, at church, in Boy Scouts — she has one wish.
“I want them to know he’s with them. I want them to make Gunner proud. I want them to be the best people they can be in honor of Gunner.”
Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/2E88m24
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The Indianapolis Star.