Shawnee Mission North grad, new father dies of cancer just before his 21st birthday

Highlights of Shawnee Mission North WR Tyler Burnett from 2014

Watch highlights of former Shawnee Mission North wide receiver Tyler Burnett from 2014.
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Watch highlights of former Shawnee Mission North wide receiver Tyler Burnett from 2014.

He was a new father, with an 11-month-old daughter.

A celebrated athlete at Shawnee Mission North, he graduated in 2016.

Tyler Burnett died of cancer Sunday at age 20.

Burnett had received the diagnosis of stage 4 clear-cell sarcoma in June, according to his family.

It came as a surprise to Burnett and his family, who initially went to an urgent care clinic after Burnett complained of stomach pain.

He was treated for stomach ulcers, but after multiple visits to the emergency room, technicians found unknown masses around his lungs in C-scans, Burnett said on social media this June. The discovery led to a series of tests that revealed he had sarcoma.

He held on to a fighting spirit until his last minutes, his parents said Monday.

“He was very impatient,” John Burnett said. “He didn’t want to talk about it. He just wanted to do it. He knew he had lost a lot of time by not knowing.”

A compassionate child who loved to dance, Burnett grew up making his family members laugh.

“He was very funny, the life of the party,” his mother, Rachelle Burnett, said. “Anything he could do to lighten the room.”

At school he enjoyed a social skills class that allowed him to work with his special needs classmates.

“He had expressed to me several times was his dream job was to be a trainer for special Olympics,” John Burnett said.

A natural athlete, Burnett played multiple sports for Shawnee Mission North High School.

He was a varsity letter-winner in both football and baseball, both of which he played for four years. He played a year of varsity basketball as a sophomore.

Shawnee Mission North assistant football coach Aaron Sawyer said Burnett was a talented wide receiver and a kid who you “never worried about doing the right thing.”

He decided to run track his senior year to prepare for college football, Sawyer said. He attacked the new sport with the same focus he brought to football, Sawyer said.

“He knew when he crossed the white line, he was prepared to go,” Sawyer said. “And he was prepared to make his teammates better.”

That toughness fueled his athletic success, but it may have also played a role in masking early signs of cancer, his family told The Star. Doctors said they believe that Burnett’s cancer likely began growing his sophomore year of high school.

Pain that Burnett experienced in his feet, hips and back would have been chalked up to sports.

After graduation in 2016, Burnett played football for Central College in Pella, Iowa . But after a concussion, he decided to quit football and returned home to attend community college.

Soon after, he learned he and his girlfriend, Alaina Beall, were expecting a baby girl.

Marlee, now 11 months old, was born on Oct. 2, 2017. Burnett put college on hold and started a job with a company that installs technology systems in homes to support his family.

“We don’t know what the reason is that Tyler gained this illness and ultimately didn’t survive it,” Rachelle Burnett said. “But now we have Marlee. If he wouldn’t have come home, we wouldn’t have Marlee to continue his spirit.”

One particularly difficult day, Burnett became unresponsive and a rapid response team worked to stabilize him. It wasn’t until his girlfriend brought Marlee into the room and said “Dada” that Burnett’s eyes opened, his head turned and he lifted his arms to reach for her, his mother said.

Burnett’s tissue will be donated to the drug company that is working on clinical trial treatments. His story will be shared at national oncology conference to showcase the importance of getting genome testing to help target treatment for cancer patients.

And on Sept. 23, a day before what would have been his 21st birthday, more than 60 people will walk to raise money for sarcoma research at the inaugural Race to Cure Sarcoma Kansas City walk, Rachelle Burnett said.

Rachelle Burnett said she witnessed her son’s strength until the very end.

Early Sunday morning, Burnett motioned for his parents to help him to the restroom. He had been bedridden for days and struggled to get enough air to speak.

As his parents helped him, his mother said, he whispered to them in the “softest voice.”

“Where there’s a will,” he said. “There’s a way.”

He died at 10:30 a.m. that morning.

Visitation for Tyler Burnett will be from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept 13 at the Maple Hill Funeral Home, 3300 Shawnee Drive in Kansas City, Kansas. A Celebration of Life will begin at 2 p.m. Sept. 14 at the funeral home.

Through a tough football season, Shawnee Mission North football players Reese Sila and Noah Laird kept perspective by raising money for Bo Macan, who has a rare genetic disease.