University of Miami

A year after fighting for his life with cancer, he will debut as a UM starter

The University of Miami's new right fielder Michael Burns at Mark Light Field.
The University of Miami's new right fielder Michael Burns at Mark Light Field. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Miami Hurricanes outfielder Michael Burns noticed the tiny lump on his upper left thigh while taking a shower in October 2015.

He ignored it as it grew and made his left quadriceps almost cartoon-like, figuring it was a fluid sac that he would eventually get drained.

Besides, it was painless and didn’t prevent him from hitting .363 in his first 30 games of the 2016 season at Cisco College in Texas.

His mother didn’t ignore it.

One night late last March, Burns’ junior college roommate, pitcher Jeb Bargfeldt, joined Burns and his visiting family from Colorado for dinner at a local Tex-Mex joint.

“Everyone was in a great mood,’’ recalled Burns, “and Jeb says, ‘Mike, have you shown your mom that thing on your leg?’

“She lost it — went crazy.’’

Wouldn’t any mom?

“That’s exactly how I remember it,’’ Anita Burns said. “I did freak out, because I’m a freaker-outer. If anything is wrong with my kids, I want to fix it. That thing was huge.’’

Lamented Bargfeldt: “I’ll remember that night the rest of my life.’’

That Burns, now 22, has replaced former star right fielder Willie Abreu for Friday’s 7 p.m. UM home opener against Rutgers, is impressive. That he has done it after 37 radiation treatments through early July, following cancer surgery to replace a malignant tumor the size of a small football, is almost inconceivable.

Michael Burns was a cancer patient less than a year ago. Now, this new Miami Hurricane has earned a starting position in right field. On Tuesday, Feb. 14, he talks about what he's heard about UM baseball fans.

And that the 5-9, 180-pound Burns has a 17-inch titanium rod running down his left femur — attached by screws from just below his hip to the top of his knee — and is still one of the fastest Hurricanes on the 2017 squad, is, well, as assistant coach Gino DiMare described it, “unbelievable.’’

“Michael Burns is a great story,’’ DiMare said of the affable, driven and beyond-appreciative redshirt junior, a preferred UM walk-on who earned a partial academic scholarship. “We’re fortunate to have him. We weren’t quite sure what shape he would be in because this all happened after we got his verbal commitment.”

Shortly after the fateful restaurant incident, Burns was diagnosed with Myxoid Liposarcoma, a rare, soft-tissue tumor that is considered intermediate to high-grade cancer and about 5 percent of the time requires amputation. He had surgery April 14 to remove most of the tumor — some of the margins were left, he said, because the tumor was dangerously close to his nerves. Chemotherapy was bypassed because of the type of tumor, but the radiation treatments stretched more than a month.

The final surgery to insert the rod, called a “femur nail,’’ occurred April 28.

Even the back surgery Burns had for a herniated disc in November 2015 turned out to be related to the tumor because, he said, “the mass in my leg was messing with the blood flow in my lower body.’’

“It was very much a roller coaster experience, and the first part of it was all downhill,’’ said Michael’s father, Mike, a Realtor who will travel with his wife to Coral Gables to watch their son debut. “Every week it seemed like another bad phone call. But once Michael got done with his last surgery, everything got better.’’

After the rod was inserted, an excruciatingly painful procedure, Burns said he was sure he would never play again.

“No shot,’’ he remembers saying to himself — until 2015 American League Manager of the Year Jeff Banister of the Texas Rangers inspired Burns with a phone call just before the radiation. Turns out Banister had bone cancer in his ankle in high school, endured several surgeries, later broke his neck, was in the hospital for months and made it to the major leagues for a day.

“He told me that my story was going to affect somebody’s life one day, that my story was going to inspire someone, that it was easy to ask, ‘Why me?’ But instead, he said I should be asking how I could become a better person.’’

Burns is from Littleton, Colorado, home of Columbine High, where he was named Athlete of the Year and starred on the state championship football team as the starting safety and backup option quarterback before he graduated in 2013.

Those a bit older remember Columbine High for something far darker. In 1999, one mile from Burns’ home, Columbine was the site of the deadliest high school shooting in American history — a massacre orchestrated by two students who shot to death 12 fellow students and a teacher, and severely injured many more before committing suicide.

“I was 4 years old,’’ said Burns, who has two younger sisters. “I come from the most tight-knit community you could ever imagine.’’

It’s a community that continues to rally around Burns with cards and messages and constant prayers.

Anita Burns, an insurance agent, said her son gets medical scans of his leg, chest and pelvis every three months because there’s a 10 percent chance of recurrence. So far, so good.

Now, not only is Burns playing baseball at a high level, he’s playing it with his former (and current) roomie Bargfeldt.

UM coach Jim Morris said Sunday that Bargfeldt, a scholarship athlete who first met Burns when they initially played at Wichita State, will start against Rutgers on Saturday as the Canes’ No. 2 pitcher.

“Honestly, he has taught me a lot more than I could ever offer him,’’ Bargfeldt, a junior from Owasso, Oklahoma, said of Burns. “If you would have hung around this guy as long as I have, you’d understand the definition of true grit and sheer competitiveness and the will to win. He showed me the tumor in the fall and we talked about what it could be. But I guarantee you Myxoid Liposarcoma was not on the list we discussed.’’

UM coach Jim Morris is thrilled to have them both. He said Bargfeldt “locates, fields his position well, has a really good move to first that holds runners — and has the highest grade point average on the team. Both he and Burns made the Dean’s List.’’

Morris described Burns as “a gamer.’’

“He’s not very big, but he’s strong and fast. He came in ready from Day One. He’s a really nice kid, and he’s got a smile on his face every day. You’ve got to be tough mentally and physically to do what he’s done.’’

DiMare, UM’s hitting coach, said Burns “has pop in his bat for being a small guy. He can bunt, he can run, he’s tough and plays good defense. He’s like the players back in the day when coach Ron Fraser was here — old school.”

Burns, who wants to go to law school, expects excellence in baseball and life. His last team went to the Junior College World Series. The Hurricanes (50-14 in 2016) are four-time national champions and have qualified for the College World Series the past two years.

“Jeb’s mom bought a whiteboard countdown calendar and we’ve been counting down for three weeks now,’’ Burns said. “I want to go to Omaha. I want to win. I want to enjoy every single day on and off the field.

“I’ve learned I can’t control outcomes, but I can control how much I love this place and how hard I’m going to work to win as many games as humanly possible. Sometimes I walk in the locker room and think, ‘Man, I play baseball at one of the most storied programs in the country.’ I think about how many kids dream about what I’m doing.

“I have a lot to be thankful for.’’

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