Miami’s Burns Beats Cancer, Eyes BreakoutColumns
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – It may have been just a fall scrimmage to some, but two observers from Colorado got very emotional when Miami Hurricanes junior outfielder Michael Burns smacked a sweet drive to left field this past November.
Logan Smith and Garrett Hyde had flown in from Denver to support their childhood friend Burns, a Hurricanes newcomer via Cisco (Texas) College.
Using his iPhone, Smith was videotaping Burns’ at-bat against a Hurricanes righthander. On a 2-2 pitch, Burns turned on a fastball, and Smith and Hyde went along for the ride, following the path of the ball with their eyes … and their hearts.
It’s hard to tell who said what on the video that was posted on Snapchat, but Smith and Hyde began rooting the ball over the wall in left field:
“That a boy, Mike!”
“Get out, get out, get out!”
“Go ball! Go ball!”
The ball did indeed clear the fence – just as Burns has cleared every hurdle placed in his path since April 14, when he had surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his left hip.
Doctors inserted a metal rod in his left leg, from the bottom of his hip to the top of his knee. The rod was designed to limit the damage done by 37 radiation treatments, roughly five per week from May 17 until he was done in July.
When Burns, 22, was told about the metal rod – which will be in his body for life – he thought his baseball career was finished.
And that’s why that fall-ball homer was so emotional for his buddies.
“In two scrimmages this fall,” Smith said, “we saw Mike throw out a runner at third, throw out a runner at home, jump and catch a ball against the fence, hit a triple and then hit that homer.
“Four months ago, he was hobbling around, not knowing if he could play again. Now he’s doing this.
“Mike is probably one of the most loved people in Columbine (Colorado). When (cancer) happened, it was devastating to everyone back home.”
Columbine, of course, knows about devastation.
On April 20, 1999, two teenagers murdered 12 students and one teacher and wounded 23 others before committing suicide in what was the deadliest high school shooting in American history.
That horrific attack will never be forgotten in the Denver area, and school is never in session at Columbine on the anniversary of the massacre.
Football, though, has been one of the diversions that helped Columbine heal. Burns was a starting safety – and he also split duties at quarterback – as a junior in 2011 when the Rebels won the Class 5A state title with only the second undefeated team (14-0) in school history.
Burns weighs 180 now, but he was 5-9 and a buck-50 in high school, and yet he ran the Rebels’ triple-option offense, taking heavy hits even when he didn’t have the ball.
“Usually after I pitched the ball, I would still find a way to get rocked,” said Burns, who ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash in high school. “It was five years ago, and I still feel it … but I’d do it all over again. It was fun.”
Burns, who idolized John Elway as a kid, said Columbine’s offensive alignment often called for no wide receivers. Burns would ask the coaches to let him throw a bit more than the three or four passes per game that he would average, but as long as the offense worked – which it clearly did – the coaches weren’t going to change.
And even though Burns’ football exploits overshadowed his baseball accomplishments at that time, the tools that made him a prospect on the diamond were in full effect – speed, toughness, leadership ability and a strong arm.
“He has a hose for an arm,” Smith said. “If he had more height, he’d be playing football right now.
“Mike was an explosive runner. He would bust out for 50 yards, and he would truck guys. Even though he was short, he would deliver blows. Because he was fast, defenses were expecting him to juke them out, but he’d just blow them up and go over the top.”
Gene Stephenson, the legendary coach at Wichita State, saw all those qualities and signed Burns to a baseball scholarship.
But Stephenson retired just a couple of months before Burns arrived on campus. Burns tried to make it work under new Shockers coach Todd Butler, but the relationship never clicked.
Burns was redshirted his freshman year and then lasted just one more season.
Jon Coyne, who had been a volunteer assistant at Wichita State, moved on to Cisco as the recruiting coordinator, a fateful decision in the chain of events.
Music fans of a certain age will remember War’s 1970s hit song “Cisco Kid”, and that’s exactly what Burns became. After deciding to transfer, Burns called Coyne, and it was an immediate match.
“I said, ‘Man I would love to have you on the team’,” Coyne said he told Burns. “I told him, ‘We will take care of you and help you get recruited all over again.’ He didn’t even take a visit. He committed that day.”
It was probably fortunate for Coyne that Burns didn’t visit Cisco first since it’s a small town with less than 4,000 inhabitants. But Coyne was on the money with what he said Cisco would do to revitalize Burns’ career.
“Mike plays mean and gets after it,” Coyne said. “He was our leadoff hitter and center fielder. He would see multiple pitches and get on base – good stuff.
“He runs balls down like his hair’s on fire. He just brings energy to the team.”
Burns’ energy was tested when he went through radiation. But how he found out he had cancer was typical Burns. The kid who never suffered a concussion and never missed a game despite being undersized at quarterback was nearly too tough for his own good.
During his sophomore season at Cisco, Burns developed a “bump” on his left leg, near his hip. He revealed his injury to his roommate, lefthander Jeb Bargfeldt, who is now a Miami teammate.
Burns, though, kept playing, not thinking it was anything serious.
One day in mid-March 2016, his parents came to visit, and Bargfeldt joined them for dinner. As it turned out, it was a good thing Bargfeldt was there.
“I made a comment, ‘Hey, have you shown your mom that thing that’s growing on your leg?’” Bargfeldt said. “She acted like it was the first time she was hearing this, and her ‘mom’ senses kicked in – she went into panic mode.”
The next morning, Burns was in the hospital.
Doctors didn’t think it was cancer at first. But, ultimately, the diagnosis was Myxoid Liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that usually affects adults ages 40 to 60.
In about 5 percent of cases, amputation is the best way to completely remove the cancer.
Burns credits his surgeon, Dr. Ronald Hugate of Denver, with not only saving his leg and his career but also his life as only 88 percent of patients survive five years after getting diagnosed.
Hugate told Burns he would be back playing baseball in a month, and that proved prophetic. Burns returned to summer baseball May 12.
Once Burns began radiation treatments on May 17, he got into a routine. After his morning treatments – which are incredibly draining for most people – Burns still had the energy to drive to Smith’s house to go run, lift weights, have breakfast and then get back on the field for batting practice.
“He never showed he was scared,” Smith said. “He treated radiation as if it were rehab for a knee injury.”
Burns said he got a call from Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister, a cancer survivor who was diagnosed while in high school and went on to play in the majors.
“He told me not to ask, ‘Why me?’” Burns said, “and instead to ask how I’m going to get better.”
The Next Chapter
Although he missed the end of Cisco’s season, Burns was there in more ways than just spirit. When Cisco won its region tournament to qualify for the JUCO World Series, the coaches had Burns on FaceTime as they ran toward the dogpile.
And since the JUCO World Series is held in Burns’ home state at Grand Junction, Colorado, he was able to visit his teammates and even take batting practice with them.
“The team was thrilled to see him,” Coyne said. “We’re like, ‘OK, he’s going to be fine.’ “
Unfortunately, Cisco was unable to win the championship, finishing fifth.
“If we had Mike, I think we would have won it,” Coyne said. “We lost our last game by one run. If we had him in our lineup, I think we score two more runs.”
Now it’s on to “The U”, where Hurricanes coach Jim Morris and his staff have welcomed him even after they were told about the cancer diagnosis.
“The No. 1 thing was, ‘Is he going to be OK’?” Morris said. “It was a tough situation. We didn’t know for sure what was going to happen. But he came in this fall and didn’t miss a minute.
“We’re lucky to have him. He’s a joy to be around. He always has a smile on his face, and rightfully so with what he’s been through. We think he has a great chance to start for us.”
Burns, who had a 3.95 unweighted GPA in high school, said his “end game” is to eventually go to law school with the idea of becoming a sports agent.
That’s a ways off, however.
More importantly, Burns said he just had his six-month scan, which showed he was cancer-free.
Burns had a solid fall. With star junior Carl Chester set in center field, look for Burns to earn a spot in right or left.
“Carl is a specimen,” said Burns, who will happily play in a corner. “That dude is 6-0, 205. He can run, hit, throw. He’s not even a baseball player – he’s a stud.”
Burns doesn’t look quite the same coming off the team bus, but he said there are quite a few guys on the Miami team who are better than they may appear.
“We have a lot of scrappy guys who love to compete,” Burns said. “I don’t know how big we look in our uniforms or what the preseason polls will say, but we’re tough.”
None tougher than Michael Burns.