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In a show of support for injured James Monroe lacrosse player Gunnar Burns, teammates and community members lit candles during a gathering at Maury Stadium. (Photos by Joey LoMonaco)

At James Monroe, support for injured lacrosse player burns brightly

by | May 24, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, High school sports

There were no athletic events on the schedule for James Monroe High School Friday night, but the scoreboard at Maury Stadium was lit up nonetheless.  

Both the “home” and “guest” columns displayed identical 3s, the number worn by Yellow Jackets junior Gunnar Burns, who suffered a serious spinal injury during a regional semifinal lacrosse game at Hanover High School on Tuesday. 

Poster board affixed to a pair of lacrosse goals bore the words “Dear Gunnar,” surrounded by a multicolored medley of sticky notes with inside jokes (“What’s for dinnah?”) and well wishes.

As a groundswell of support materialized around 6 p.m. on Burns’ home field, he was 60 miles south at VCU Medical Center, undergoing a second surgery to address the inflammation around his spinal cord. An initial procedure removed bone fragments from the bottom part of his cervical spine, which was crushed.  

“The next 72 hours are going to be crucial,” said Burns’ mother, Leslie, “and in 72 hours, they’re going to be able to tell us what’s going to happen.” 

James Monroe lacrosse coach Karson Hastings addressed the crowd of more than 100 community members, recounting how Burns suffered the injury.  

Fredericksburg Schools Superintendent Marci Catlett hugs Leslie Burns, the mother of injured James Monroe lacrosse player Gunnar Burns.

“Gunnar is an LSM [long-stick midfielder], he slid to the guy going to the goal, his head kind of went into the gentleman’s chest, and that’s where it began,” Hastings said.  

Even as Burns lay on the turf being attended to by EMTs who were forced to cut his jersey off, he kept his priorities straight, teammates said.  

“Coach, at least there’s no baddies [girls] here,” Burns’ friend Jack Billingsley recalled of his most pressing concern at the time. “To which anybody couldn’t help but laugh.” 

Humor was a common theme for Burns’ friends who spoke during Friday’s gathering. Teammate Jeb Brough recalled visiting him in the hospital yesterday.  

“We could tell his spirits were high, because the first thing we could hear was him cussing out the nurses,” Brough said. “When we finally got to see him, he seemed more worried about the dress he had on or anything else. He was able to make people laugh even when he was in a lot of pain.” 

Tyler Houston, who coached Burns last summer, described the roles typically sought by coaches when assembling a successful lacrosse team. There’s the dodger, the shooter and then the “glue guy,” who covers his teammates’ shortcomings.

“It’s very clear to me here today looking at this group that Gunnar is a glue guy,” Houston said. “And this group here today is that glue for Gunnar. We’re all in this together.”

Leslie Burns said she and her husband Bobby, Gunnar’s father, have been alternating 24-hour shifts at VCU Medical Center since Tuesday, running on little sleep between treks up and down Interstate 95.

“He goes and then I come home, so we can rest up and make sure we’re good for him,” she said. 

Neither of Burns’ parents was in Hanover when he suffered the injury. After receiving the worst phone call of their lives, they rushed down to Richmond, arriving before Gunnar emerged from his first surgery.  

“When he woke up, we were there,” Leslie Burns said.  

A poster board contains sticky notes with well wishes for Gunnar Burns.

After several of Burns’ friends and coaches spoke, Del. Joshua Cole took the microphone to offer a prayer for his recovery and for the skilled surgeons it will require.  

Hastings noted that lacrosse, a sport originally played by the Haudenosaunee Indian Tribe, is considered the “medicine game.”

For Burns, the healing process will continue long after the small white candles lit in his name at the conclusion of Friday’s gathering are extinguished.

“All we need right now are prayers for a strong recovery,” said Leslie Burns, “because it’s going to be a long haul.” 

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