Heroism has taken many forms for NU football star Ron Burton

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Forty years ago, Ron Burton was the star halfback for the Northwestern Wildcats and I was the sports editor of the Daily Northwestern.

His senior year, in 1959, Ron broke all the records and was voted to just about all the All-American teams. During that Cinderella year, before the clock struck 12, Northwestern won its first six games, was ranked No. 2 in the country and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But time ran out for the Wildcats, and we lost the last three games and finished fifth in the Big 10 standings. After NU's first loss, to Wisconsin, our boys seemed to run out of steam.

You'd think those heady days would be a musty memory by now, but the other Saturday in Chicago they all came back. Ron was back in town to receive the alumni association's Service to Society Award, and we started talking football as if Ron had just trotted off the field after one of his 21 career rushing touchdowns.

After Northwestern's 15-10 loss to Wisconsin, I wrote in the Daily that had we won "the momentum of winning might have taken them all the way. But the loss drained the Wildcats of most of their physical and mental energy and there just wasn't any reserve power to fill the gap."

Ron confirmed my insightful impression. Then, if a player came out of the game he couldn't return until the next quarter. We had a great first string (guys like Mike Stock at fullback, Jim Andreotti at center, Gene Gossage at tackle, Dick Thornton at quarterback, the Kimbrough brothers at ends) but not much backup. Many of our players were on the field for over 400 minutes during the '59 season, when 300 minutes was considered a normal performance.

Ron said at the end of the season he was so battered he couldn't lift his arms over his shoulders. We both agreed the Wisconsin defeat was one of the saddest days of our lives (I guess I've been lucky; it still ranks right up there).

Ron went on to a great career with the Boston Patriots (he was their No. 1 pick in the first-ever AFL draft), racking up 19 touchdowns. He then went to work for the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. He and his wife JoAnn raised five children (they all went to Northwestern). In between, he founded a couple of Pop Warner Football League programs and won all kinds of awards for his work with kids.

In 1985, against the advice of his lawyer and his bank, Ron hocked just about everything to buy some land outside of Boston to build a camp for inner city kids.

The Ron Burton Training Village, according to a Boston Globe article, "was inspired by his own youth. People helped him as a kid, and he made up his mind he would return the favor if ever he had the chance." The camp is a six-week course in physical and mental development with, as the Globe said, "all the food you can eat."

Campers get up and run 7.5 miles a day. Ron runs with them. "My mom died when I was 12," he recalled to the Globe. "My dad got sick and had to leave. All I had was my grandmother, who was a gospel preacher. I remember being hungry. That taught me early life is not a joke. Kids would make fun of me when I was poor. Ever since I saved everything I had and invested it. That's what you do when you don't have anything."

Judging from the response he received at the awards banquet and the reception preceding it, Ron's got a lot going for him now. Everybody wanted to talk to him, everybody wanted to shake his hand. Yet he's a sweet and humble man. He told my wife Merrilee that back in my sportswriting days I made him look good.

Ron was on his feet for an hour or so before we sat down to dinner, so you'd have no idea he has cancer of the lymphatic system. Doctors told him he has one to three years to live. His wife JoAnn told Merrilee and me they're scheduling a bone marrow transplant for July, and with the help of his friends he's fighting hard to beat the disease.

I get the feeling that Ron is determined, this time, not to run out of steam. Too many kids need him, and he wants to keep running alongside them for years to come.

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