The moments leading to the start of the Miami Dolphins game against the New England Patriots on Sunday are going to be difficult for Matt Burke.
The Dolphins’ defensive coordinator knows it.
He admits it.
It’s four days before that fateful time arrives, and Burke is already choking up thinking about it. Burke’s fighting back tears as we speak outside the media room at the Dolphins training facility on Thursday.
Burke is telling stories about his father. He’s talking about how Richard Burke had it rough as a young man. How he grew up without a father. How he dropped out of high school when he was 16 and his mom worked in a factory. Burke tells how his dad was 17 years old when he joined the Navy and got shipped out to Okinawa, Japan.
When he came home to Massachusetts, the elder Burke endured more hard times. Matt Burke says his dad got into some trouble before, like the true U.S. Navy man he was, he corrected course.
“His whole parenting philosophy was you’re not going to be like me,” Burke says. “You’re not going to go through the things I went through.”
And this is where it gets emotional.
“My father passed away this spring, in May,” Burke says. “Not a lot of people know that. So this [trip home to New England] will be a hard one for me. Both of my folks were still up in New Hampshire. They’re snowbirds. They were actually down here when my dad passed — up in Boynton Beach.”
This will be Burke’s first game back home knowing there won’t be a visit with his father before the game nor the phone conversation that had become tradition afterward.
“So this one, it’ll be hard,” Burke repeats. “Early on, I’ll have to fight that side of things.”
Burke is a native of Hudson, Massachusetts, and went to college in the New England area at Dartmouth. Early in his career he coached at Boston College and at Harvard. So this trip, maybe 15-20 friends and family will come to see him either on Saturday night or after the game Sunday.
Many will watch with mixed feelings as Burke coaches the Miami defense against the hometown Patriots.
But Richard Burke, a lifelong and loyal Patriots fan, is going to miss this one. He’s going to have to watch from the banisters of heaven.
“I think about him every pregame,” Burke says. “That’s what I do during every national anthem. I think about my dad — even when he was alive.”
Why during the national anthem?
When he was in high school, Burke played basketball as well as football.
“So you’re a 17-year-old kid or whatever and before the game I’d be there and they played the national anthem,” Burke says. “And I’d be rocking back and forth. I used to always do that. So one time my dad said to me, “Why are you moving around during the anthem?’
“ ‘What do you mean, pop? I’m energetic.’ And he just said, ‘It bothers me.’ You know, he was a veteran and stuff and he just said, ‘It bothers me.’ So I said, ‘All right pop.’ I stopped doing it. Never again. And now during every national anthem I don’t move around.
“I put my hand on my heart, stand still and I think of my dad. And that’s going to be the hardest part about Sunday.”
Richard Burke wasn’t a football coach, but Burke calls him “the biggest influence in my life. By far.”
He was a hero to Matt Burke.
“Yeah, By far,” Burke agrees.
The hero had been sick for some time before he died. He required a kidney transplant years ago. He died of lung cancer, but there were other serious challenges as well.
But none of those challenges could apparently separate Richard from his beloved New England Patriots.
Richard was in hospice a few days before he passed. And on one of those days Burke was spending time alone and his father. They talked and joked as perhaps only a father and son can.
“I joked with him, ‘Dad what are we going to do with you?’ “ Burks recalls. “And he said, ‘I want you to bury me at Foxborough Stadium.’
“I used to give him crap. I used to tell him, ‘Dad [screw] the Patriots! That [stuff] goes against my livelihood right now. And he’d say, “I’ve been a Pats fan since 1960 when they started. I’ve been with them every year they’ve been in existence.’
“Even when I was [the linebackers coach] in Detroit, I used to call him after every game. So we’d be on the bus and I’d call my pops and we’d talk about the game a little bit. He’d watch. My sister would have NFL Ticket so sometimes he’d go over there. Sometimes he couldn’t catch it but he’d follow along on the phone or whatever.
“So I’d tell him how we played. ‘Yeah, we had a great play, we did this and that.’ And it would be like three or four minutes and then he’d say, ‘Hey, so, did you see the New England game? No, dad. And he’d say, ‘They won, too!’ He always still had that in him.”
Last year when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, 27-20, Richard was fired up, especially when the broadcast turned its attention to Burke as the Miami defense was limiting the Patriots to 248 total yards.
And Richard Burke was thrilled for his son. But one supposes at some point he realized his Patriots had gotten mauled.
“When he starts getting off the rails a little bit, my mom would bring him back,” Burke says. “She’d be like, ‘That’s your son!’ There was always that dichotomy up there. They’re hardcore fans up there, man.”
Richard Burke was buried in Boston.
“He’ll be watching,” Matt Burke says. “He didn’t miss many of them.”