When Cierra Fuel gave birth to her son in May, her eldest brother made sure his gift was delivered to the hospital in his absence.
Fuel’s mother, one of the only people allowed in the room due to COVID-19 restrictions, passed her the present: a football.
“Welcome to my legacy,” read the ball, signed by Christopher “Cheese” Burnett. “I’ll help show you the way.”
Four months later, as Fuel prepares to bury her brother — a pillar in the Olathe football community — she says his legacy casts a net larger than she could have imagined.
Burnett died on Sept. 11 after two weeks in the hospital battling the coronavirus. The football coach for Olathe East High School and Kansas City Glory, an all-female team, was 35 years old.
Stories of the beloved husband, father of four and coach have circled the Olathe community and beyond in the days since his passing. They paint a picture of a man who spent his short live giving and giving.
A lifelong love of football
When David Svajda started coaching a metro little league football team in 1995, he created an award for the lineman who stood out each week.
The first ever “Hog of the Week” recognition, accompanied by a plush pink pig, went to Burnett, then a third-grader.
Svajda, now 71 and living in Olathe, still has the pig. It’s a light-hearted reminder of the positive attitude and work ethic that made Burnett a “superb” football player from a young age.
Burnett was always the first at practice and the last to leave, his mother often cheering from the stands, Svajda said. When it was time to huddle, his hand beat the others to the center.
Local legend says Burnett earned the nickname “Cheese” around the same time.
A coach had rewarded players with cheeseburgers at the concession stand for making sacks, said Fuel, who served as the team’s manager while her brother played. After many trips to the concession stand, Burnett earned the nickname “Cheeseburger.” It was shortened to “Cheese” in high school, and the nickname stuck.
Football was a natural first love growing up in the Burnett household, Fuel said. And once the spark ignited in her brother, he became a presence on the field.
After a brief semi-pro career with the Midwest Titans during which they won a National Title, Burnett turned to the sidelines.
His coaching career spanned from pee-wee to boy’s high school and women’s football.
Burnett coached children of community members, neighbors and friends. But he also coached his own son and nephews.
Fuel recalled Burnett hollering to her son, now 13, “You’d better not suck today.”
Her son would laugh, and say “OK uncle,” as he ran onto the field, smiling behind his mouth guard.
The day Burnett’s son scored his first touchdown, Fuel heard the commotion before she saw it.
“GO, GO, GO,” she heard her brother shouting. Then she saw him jumping up and down, his large set of keys jangling from the lanyard hanging from his pants. His joy was visceral.
Fuel said the pandemic sparked her brother’s passion even more. He made it a point to give the kids he coached structure and community through socially-distanced workouts on the field. He knew how difficult it was for them to be stuck at home all day.
After learning of their coach’s death, some of the boys on the Olathe East football team have asked to quit, Fuel said. She admitted it’s hard to grieve when there are constant reminders of her brother everywhere she looks.
Family was trying to talk him into getting vaccinated, but he was scared there wasn’t enough research done yet, and he wanted to wait a little longer, Fuel said.
“It’s everybody’s individual choice and we do understand that, but at the same time it’s tough to have to accept that a little poke in your arm could have possibly saved your life,” she said of her brother.
An educator at heart
Sheila Irvin was Burnett’s math teacher for two years at Olathe North High School.
“Because of his exuberance and friendliness, you can imagine that he was a challenge to the learning process in my class,” she said, adding that Burnett and his friends had an inclination toward chatting in class and pulling the occasional prank.
But more than that, Burnett was there for other students when they needed a hand, Irvin said.
Once, when he noticed a teammate lugging all his football gear on his long walk home, Burnett told his parents, and the Burnetts made sure the student had a ride home every day from then on.
“Chris made me a better teacher during those two years,” Irvin said. “He was so good-natured and I couldn’t help but love him.”
Years later, when Irvine began substitute teaching, as she still does today, she watched with pride as Burnett became a paraprofessional educator at Santa Fe Trail Middle School, teaching students with special needs. More recently, he planned to become a certified teacher.
“Once he got into the school and had the opportunity to connect with the kids there, that’s when you really saw a big change,” said Burnett’s longtime friend, Kellen Long, 35, of Olathe. “He started to notice how he can not only affect the kids, but also give some positivity and some influence to the community.”
His renewed dedication to youth was obvious on the field too. It was no longer just about football. It was about teaching the importance of being a good person and an active community member, loved ones said. And few things mattered more to Burnett on the field than getting good grades off the field.
If a kid was struggling, he wasn’t afraid to sit down and have tough conversations with them, Long said. Burnett noticed that many kids came from single-parent homes, or didn’t have male role models in their lives. He did what he could to bridge the gap.
When one player was causing trouble at home, Burnett and Long had him run a few extra laps, both coaches pounding the pavement beside him.
Once football was over, Burnett still kept in touch, encouraging the now-young men to continue their educations, to find steady jobs and to keep out of trouble.
More recently, Burnett had dreams of coaching at higher levels, Long said. They’d even had conversations about opening a school.
The gift of time
Long grew up beside Burnett. Usually playing in the backyard. Usually throwing around a ball of some sort.
They stuck together through middle school at Oregon Trail, and high school at Olathe North. Later, they attended MidAmerican Nazarene University. Once they both became fathers, they started a little league flag football team together that lasted about a decade.
Since his friend’s death, Long has reflected on their time together. Burnett was by his side the day Long met his now-wife. He was there when he proposed, when he got married and when he welcomed his first child into the world.
Looking back at all that now, he said the greatest gift Chris gave was his time.
He knew Chris’ impact was big, but he didn’t realize the full scope until the cascade of love and support and grief started coming from the community. The outpouring of love has been overwhelming.
An outpouring from all the kids he patiently taught. From all the football games he attended just to cheer on students he was no longer coaching. From all the family and friends whose homes he waltzed into after loudly announcing his presence. For the nieces and nephews without father figures who he took under his wing as his own.
“He spent so much time making sure he showed up for things and making sure that his presence was felt,” Long said.
A community mourning, remembering
In January, Fuel spent her 35th birthday bowling at Main Event where she recognized their server and assumed he probably knew her brother.
“Coach Cheese! Oh yeah, that’s my dude man,” he said.
He was a player at East, and said Burnett was the reason he stayed the course, got good grades and got a job, the young man told Fuel.
She said the young man was almost in tears talking about her brother. When they paid, he insisted on giving them the family and friends discount.
Now, similar stories are cropping up left and right.
Olathe East athletic director Kaleb Stoppel has watched the Kansas City area football community wrap its arms around Burnett’s family in recent weeks.
“That is the profound impact that this young man had because he loved kids through the game of football,” Stoppel said.
Olathe East Football boosters sold red shirts with “Coach Cheese” inscribed across them, complete with an outline of his face.
At the Olathe East vs. Shawnee Mission Northwest football game last Friday, fans filled the stands wearing red in Burnett’s honor. Last week, the Kansas City Chiefs also gifted his family with a football.
Burnett’s family is hosting a fundraiser on Facebook asking for financial help supporting his young children. Kansas City Glory, a women’s football team on which Burnett coached, also created a GoFundMe to support his family.
A visitation is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon on Sept. 27 at Faith Deliverance Family Worship Center. The family is also planning a public memorial for Burnett from 5 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 27 at the Olathe East High School Field. Family is expecting a crowd.
“It’s something that’s very hard, but out of this, we celebrate life. We celebrate loving on people, loving on kids,” Stoppel said.
“We take a moment to pause, right now with all the craziness happening in the world, to look at an example of somebody who loves what he did, who he did it with and just found every moment in his life to pour into someone else.”
The Star’s Vahe Gregorian contributed.