Football great helps heal Browning teen
by Kim Skornogoski
Blackfeet Reservation, Montana: On the Blackfeet Reservation, it's all too easy for a 13-year-old boy to get lost. This is a story about how one was found.
Just a few months ago, Lona Burns watched as her son Jake stopped caring.
The boy, who once worked hard to earn straight A's, had to be forced to go to school. His dream of playing football for the Denver Broncos fell away — he couldn't even be convinced to show up for school football practices.
Jake didn't laugh anymore, and he didn't joke around with his three sisters.
Lona feared her son would drop out of school, just as she and his father, Lil' Bob Burns, had done after eighth grade.
Dropping out was Lil' Bob's one regret — a lesson he shared with his children who were all pushed to graduate and earn good grades.
Both Burns parents worked hard to overcome their shortened education. Lil' Bob became the owner of the Babb bar, and Lona Burns is studying journalism.
Though his nickname might hint otherwise, Lil' Bob was huge — both in size and personality. It wasn't unusual for him to be seen with Jake hugging one of his tree-trunk legs or watching his favorite football team with his son by his side.
His dream was to take Jake to a Broncos game in Denver, the home of his hero, John Elway.
Unfortunately, it also wasn't unusual for him to drink. Last March, Lil' Bob's liver failed, and he was hospitalized.
A few days before his death, Jake put his mouth to his father's forehead and pleaded with his dad to stay. He said they needed to go to a Broncos game together.
When Lil' Bob died, his daughters Teddi, Kayla, Kelsie and Jake planned his funeral. They followed his wishes, burying him in his John Elway jersey and a football in his hand. His pallbearers wore Broncos shirts and hats.
Losing a father and a best friend, Jake took Lil' Bob's death especially hard.
"After his dad died, he didn't care about school or football — anything that made him who he was," Lona Burns said. "It really worried me. I didn't want him to end up the way we did."
For months, Jake sunk into depression. For months, he never cried.
"He was completely heartbroken," Lona Burns said. "His world was turned upside down. He was really shaken."
Then in October one of Lil' Bob's best friends, Christopher Hamlet ,decided to step in and fulfill his friend's dream. He bought plane and game tickets and flew with Jake to Denver.
Building up to the big event, Jake joined his aunt Cynthia and her husband, who live in Denver, at one of Elway's restaurants. So excited he barely ate, Jake's eyes scanned the restaurant walls crammed with photos and signed jerseys.
Then, the Hall-of-Famer walked in the door.
Frozen in awe, Jake didn't have the courage to approach his idol. Fortunately, he didn't have to.
Seems his uncle is famous sport columnist Rick Reilly, who called Elway over to their table to introduce him to Jake.
Though it took a few moments before Jake was even brave enough to shake his hero's hand, he soon had a photo of him by Elway's side and an autographed football.
Just as Elway turned to walk away, the quarterback instead asked Jake to join him at the football game in his luxury box. There, Jake peppered him with questions and finally got his smile back.
Elway even invited the 13-year-old to join him for dinner afterward.
Halfway through the night, Jake snuck into a bathroom to call his mom. He was sobbing, finally.
Lona Burns said Jake came back from Denver as his old self.
"He has a really energetic, bubbly spirit," she said. "He loves to laugh and tease.