“No one loved being a sportswriter or the camaraderie of the press box more than sweet, kind Bryan Burwell. Will love and miss him always.”
I posted those words on Twitter early Thursday morning, shortly after Bryan’s wife, Dawn, called to tell me Bryan had died.
It’s been hard to think about anyone or anything else since, and I keep coming back to the start: his love for the fascinating, messy process of sportswriting and those he shared the adventures with.
Because for everything else sportswriting might be about, it would be a hollow, unfulfilling and lonely way of life without so many amazing colleagues, the brothers and sisters with whom we absorb the marvels and absurdities and stresses and perks of the job.
From Athens, Greece, to Athens, Ga., and about anywhere in between, Bryan animated the sanctuary of the press box (or press room or press row, as the case may be) and its surroundings.
Beyond the countless numbers of people he moved with his writing or broadcast work, Bryan’s affable but strong-willed way had a profound influence on many.
It left an indelibly positive impression on hundreds of people directly in our line of work or attached to it in some way.
Most of all, he was someone just about everyone was always glad to see coming.
It was especially so for those of us who were able to call him a teammate, as we were at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 2002-13.
Bryan was only 59 when he died after a particularly invasive form of cancer.
But he left so much for us to celebrate and emulate and consider:
▪ OWNING YOUR ATTITUDE: We all have default demeanors, whether we recognize them or not. Bryan’s automatic stance was somewhere between a smile and an infectious laugh.
He took his work seriously, but not himself. It’s hard to think of anyone who was more ready to laugh at himself.
Even after decades of decorated service in the profession, even after knowing occasional frustrations, he seemed to approach every event like it was his first.
It was always a sense of wonder with him, a new story and adventure waiting, a new relationship to be initiated or an old one to be nurtured.
And relationships were the entire point, his calling card in the profession and, really, his reason to be.
Some see cultivating relationships simply as a means to an end. To Bryan, relationships also were an end in themselves.
▪ FAIRNESS FIRST: Bryan loved to talk, but he was a listener, too.
That’s a wonderful gift in friendship, maybe the best, and it also served him well in his craft.
Something about his approach and aura had ways of compelling people to speak even when they really didn’t want to.
But it wasn’t because he was manipulative.
It was because he was so direct and responsible with what people told him.
He didn’t betray confidences, and he was intellectually honest with sources: He tried his best to convey the spirit of what people meant, which isn’t always the same as what they said.
Because of that abiding sense of integrity, because he knew the important differences between cynicism and healthy skepticism, he was always welcome back even when he was critical.
That distinguished Bryan, particularly in an era where being mean-spirited or outlandish seems more and more to be the coin of the realm.
In the media, and in every medium, really, people too often mistake being vicious with candid disagreement or honest dissent.
“Bryan was always fair,” former Rams receiver Isaac Bruce told Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch. “He was always fair with me and fair to me. Which is rare these days. I don’t think he ever had an agenda. I don’t think he was trying to pad his résumé.
“When I wasn’t playing well, he let me know. But you know what, you respect people like that, for being honest but not trying to be malicious at the same time. That was Bryan. That sums it up in a nutshell as far as his profession.
“He was never the type to have to scream and yell to get his point across. Once again, that’s rare. It’s what people are doing on television to sell shows right now. That wasn’t Bryan. So much respect to him and the body of work.”
Now, Bryan never flinched from taking on thorny topics or criticism. In fact, he had a certain zeal for what I liked to call wading into the muck.
But because he was less a gadfly than he was a social butterfly, because he wasn’t prone to cheap shots, people could disagree with him on his stances and like him all at once.
That helps explain why hundreds took to Twitter to lament his death, generating so much traffic he was trending at No. 2 on the social-media site on Thursday.
▪ PICK YOUR BATTLES: A story Bryan told so often that I honestly can’t remember if I was sitting with him or just heard it so many times that I think I was:
At the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, ushers urged even the media to don white, hooded ponchos to participate in creating a white-out effect.
This was a bit close to a KKK look for Bryan, who with bemusement declined to participate.
Not surprisingly, he always laughed as he told the story.
Racism made Bryan bristle, but he also knew the difference between an innocent misunderstanding and something to take offense to.
▪ DO IT NOW: A few weeks ago, I had the incredible fortune of seeing Bryan one last time.
If you know someone who’s ill, or in a bad way, please don’t wait another minute or day to call or go see them, if you can. You just don’t know what’s next.
Dawn, to me a legend because of the reverence with which Bryan always spoke of her, ushered me down the stairs to where he was sitting.
Neither of us quite knew what to say as I walked toward him, trying not to seem despondent. Then he started crying, or maybe I was first, and I leaned in to hug him up a minute.
And that was enough of the sappy stuff.
A Mizzou football game was on in the background, and we had a lot of catching up and laughing to do. He was eager to get the “preseason” of medical testing behind so he could begin the “regular-season” grind of treatment.
Bryan could drink only water by then, and at one point Dawn came down and offered Perrier for a change of pace.
Bryan took a few sips as she was walking back up the stairs.
And then he called her back, almost giddily thankful and excited about how good the Perrier tasted.
To the end, that was him: always cheerful, always the same person, always the optimist.
A person you were always happy to see coming and so hate to see leave.
A person who didn’t just idly want the world to be a better place but made it one by how he set an example for us all each day.