Shawn Burr vs. cancer: My money’s on Burr

by | Feb 27, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Last Monday – less than a week ago – Shawn Burr was a free man. He saw his daughter’s game, he came home, he made a shake with pomegranate seeds, something his wife had purchased at Costco.

Next day, he felt funny. His tongue developed red spots. “The seeds,” he figured. He also was exhausted. He went to the doctor. While there, he began to sweat. They sent him to the hospital. Blood was taken. When another doctor said, “We need to check something,” Shawn turned to his wife, Amanda, and said, “This isn’t good news. Did you see his face?”

It wasn’t good news. Burr, 44, was helicoptered from Port Huron to the University of Michigan Medical Center with a blood count that was as lopsided as a bankruptcy budget.

On Thursday, three days from the pomegranate shake, he underwent the first of 21 chemotherapy treatments for acute myeloid leukemia, a bone marrow cancer in which abnormal white cells attack normal cells like a 3-on-1 hockey rush.

If you know Shawn Burr, you just want to cry.

And if you know Shawn Burr, he just wants to laugh.

A love for the game

“I’m gonna be who I always am,” he said via phone from his hospital bed. “I don’t want to die, but I’m not planning on that. I’ve got a great team here. Besides, in this ward, I’ve got more hair than anybody.”

Laugh. Cry. You want to shake the tree of fairness. You want to shout, “Not Shawn Burr!” Not the biggest heart to ever pull on a Red Wings sweater. He wasn’t the fastest or most gifted, but he threw himself at the game like a lovesick teenager. He played 11 years for the Wings, made some great plays, made some impassioned hits and made everyone feel better about being alive.

Like the time he painted his hair red and white in the playoffs – and everyone else followed. Like the time he screened a Nicklas Lidstrom overtime playoff goal, then said, “Good thing I have a big rear end.” Like the time someone asked about female reporters in the locker room, and he said, “I think the fairest thing is if everyone took their clothes off.”

Laugh. Cry. You would routinely see Burr with tears in his eyes when the Wings’ season ended. You would see him choke up if he spoke about his kids. The Lord gave him a boy’s face to play a boy’s game, and while he thickened out over the years the face remained the same, illuminated, a Huckleberry smile, framed by a haircut out of a 1950s barbershop.

Not Shawn Burr, you whisper. Not this fast. Less than a week? From home to chemo?

“When I look back, I’d been tired a lot lately,” Burr said. “Playing racquetball or skating in alumni games, I’d be so winded. I said to Bill Evo, ‘Is there a point where you just lose it?'”

Let that be the last of the word “lose.”

Keeping the right attitude

This can be a winnable battle for Burr, but make no mistake, it’s like a wild card entering the playoffs: a long road with a lot of rounds. The 21 chemo treatments, Burr says, essentially will break him down to his foundations, then they will try to build him up healthy. He may need a bone marrow transplant. And it’s gonna hurt like hell.

“They needed a sample from my hips, and after three tries, the doc said, ‘I’m gonna have to get the big boy needle’ cause my butt was so thick, so thanks to Scotty Bowman for sitting me on the bench all those years.”

Laugh. Cry.

Why, as you get older, is there always another round of bad news, another face, forever youthful in your mind, suddenly calling from a hospital? You want to freeze time. You want to hold when Burr was jumping after a goal, giggling like a hyena, shoving teammates playfully, telling one bad pun after another. Not this. Not Shawn Burr in a hospital bed.

“Aw, knowing me,” he joked, “I’m gonna be the first person to ever gain weight through chemotherapy. Also, I know it didn’t have anything to do with it – but I’m never eating another pomegranate seed in my life.”

Pull out the prayers. Pull them over your head like an old No.11 sweater, and pray that this story ends the way most Shawn Burr stories ended, with people laughing and shaking their heads. Laugh. Cry. But please not in that order.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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