The clock closed in on midnight as another SEC football thriller wound down at Columbia’s Williams-Brice Stadium. Inside the press box, one of the nation’s most prominent sports columnists looked over at The Post and Courier’s Ken Burger in deadline panic.
“I’ve got nothing,” the man said 20 years ago, “or nothing worthy of public consumption.”
Burger, calmly: “My column will be ready as soon as the score goes final. And if you tell me to write 500 words on that moth on the window, I’ll have a good story in 15 minutes.”
Ken won all kinds of national and regional awards for his newspaper columns before retiring in 2011 to focus on writing interesting novels and witty blog posts.
Some of the vintage column quips — whether they made you laugh or made you furious — stick, including this 1995 classic: “I love women. I love basketball. But I hate women’s basketball.”
He’s a better person than a writer, a loyal pal and eager mentor who doesn’t do shallow relationships.
Thus, my status as a Post and Courier teammate for 25 years prompts “How is Ken?” inquiries from press boxes all over the South.
But journalism accomplishments others only dream about and enough friends to fill a stadium don’t come close to matching Ken’s magnificent impact in the area of prostate cancer awareness since he was diagnosed in 2007. Even as an unconventionally wonderful 65-year-old man lies struggling in the hospital, the “How is Ken?” answer remains the same.
He feels a heck of a lot better when people pay attention to the warning he’s turned into a mantra: Cancer screenings save lives.
Ken didn’t set out to become the face of prostate cancer in the Lowcountry, but it didn’t take long for him to turn an affliction into a mission. Early on, Ken challenged fear and manliness with appeals on behalf of wives, children, significant others, pets.
Whatever it takes to get reluctant guys to make an appointment.
He turns the real work into compartmentalized duty. Fundraising and counseling. Lobbying big-wigs and providing a big shoulder to cry on in lobbies. The Ken Burger Prostate Challenge Golf Tournament is an annual Kiawah Island staple.
Ken knows screenings become more important every year as men live longer and cancer seems to find new inroads via an environment sprinkled, sprayed and produced with artificial ingredients.
Patients know Ken as a supportive soulmate prepared for the greatest rally. Few people have done a better job of rallying in life, as you quickly realize when you meet Ken’s wife, Bonnie Grossman.
“The caring Ken Burger was there in the hospital visiting me and supporting me when I had my prostate surgery five years ago,” said John Kresse, the legendary former College of Charleston basketball coach. “It was just such a wonderful gesture. It meant the world to me.”
Ken has visited so many patients the folks at the Roper St. Francis Foundation and Cancer Center last May dedicated the Ken Burger Consultation Room on the seventh floor of Roper Hospital.
The man, the myth, the room.
“Through his personal involvement as a lay navigator for our cancer program, Ken has so generously shared his wisdom and experiences with our prostate cancer patients and had a major positive impact on the prostate cancer patients’ experience at Roper St. Francis,” said Dr. Steve Akman, medical director of Roper St. Francis Cancer Care.
Isn’t it great that Facebook and email (firstname.lastname@example.org) exist so people can thank Ken?
How is Ken?
Still hilarious after all these cancer treatments.
His sense of humor is infectious. Ken needles pals and strangers alike, and can take a joke.
His five marriages fostered lines such as, “What does Ken Burger have in common with the Boston Celtics?” Answer: “Three rings in the ’80s.”
For some reason, Ken “The Big Cheese” Burger never was much for the silly nicknames ESPN’s Chris Berman laid on athletes.
True, Ken was always quick to pick up a check. When the company expense account allowed.
He thinks he’s a good golfer. He has lost more golf balls than Cosmo Kramer.
Ken likes to walk around humming old-school beach music and rock ‘n’ roll. But once when asked, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” he had no idea the question was an R.E.M. song title, and no clue R.E.M. was a popular band.
“Yeah,” Ken shot back, “but I saw Janis Joplin live.”
If only he could sing like Janis Joplin.
When you think about it, Ken isn’t that good at anything — except friendship, being a doting grandfather, writing and steadfast cancer awareness campaigns.
But, oh, is he good at that stuff.
I love writing columns. I love Ken Burger. I hate writing this column about Ken Burger.
It pays off, though, if enough of you guys listen to Ken and get your theoretically healthy butts into the doctor’s office before that moth gets off the window.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff