In the most exciting professional football game this season, the 49ers defeated the LA Rams 27-24. By doing so, the 49ers assured themselves of a wildcard berth in the upcoming playoffs. Much of the credit goes to the 49er defense when they stepped up big time in the second half, but the most credit has to go to quarterback Garoppolo who scored the winning touchdown pass in the closing seconds of regulation to force the overtime. Every time I watch them it reminds me of a former 49er pal of many years. His name was Don Burke, who passed away several years ago.
Spending more than half his adult life in the Reno area the former standout for USC and the San Francisco 49ers never failed to make Nevada home games— particularly of the oblate spheroid variety. I usually spotted him and his wife Carole on the sunny side of Mackay stadium as we took our usual halftime stroll around the pedestrian track at Mackay.
Shortly after moving here permanently in 1977, Don became a driving force in the development of the local chapter of the NFL Alumni Association. He was joined in those efforts by two local products who had Pro football careers; Ed Pine with the Niners and Glenn Carano with the Dallas Cowboys. Another sparkplug for the association was localite Don Manoukian, who played for the early day Oakland Raiders.
The hallmark event for the NFL Alumni was an annual golf tournament. Such events were held on a regional basis around the country and a National Championship Golf Tourney was held once a year. Through Burke’s efforts, Reno was a site for the National and I recall attending one such where the banquet was held at the MGM (now the Grand Sierra Resort). The banquet itself had all the trappings that have become familiar on TV with the annual ESPY awards show.
One of the top invited guests was famed Sports artist Leroy Neiman and when Burke asked if I could give Neiman a ride to the airport on the following day, I said I would be glad to oblige if Neiman would autograph one of his Tennis prints I had purchased for my son Zach. Neiman was happy to do so and turned out to be a marvelous interview for a subsequent newspaper piece.
Burke first arrived on the local scene courtesy of another native Nevadan, Newt Crumley of Elko, who was a fine athlete in his own right. Crumley had sold the family resorts in Elko and purchased the Holiday Hotel (now the Sienna) in the late ‘50s. He then recruited Burke to represent his Reno hotel in the Bay Area and subsequently Don was interfacing with us local PR men at the Chamber of Commerce Promotion Committee meetings.
We all immediately took a liking to Don, who was outspoken and filled with excellent promotional ideas. He was so well known in the Bay Area that when Crumley met his untimely death in an airplane crash a few years later, the then manager of the Chamber, Jud Allen, was quick to recruit Burke to open a Reno office on busy Market Street in San Francisco.
From that spot Don began is long career of funneling tourists to Reno. His hallmark promotion was the creation of the Reno Fun Train, which hauled some 700 passengers over the hill during the winter weekends. The Fun Train still runs to this day and is a sellout every weekend.
As mentioned above, Burke pretty much bled scarlet and gold when cut, as the team colors at USC and San Francisco closely resemble one another. Although I worked hand in glove with him on numerous endeavors, my favorite time was during the Mapes Invitational Golf tournaments. Crumley had started the three-day events at the Holiday which were quickly duplicated by Harrah’s. Because Crumley’s big draw was the presence of former Hall of Fame baseball players we were able to inveigle Burke to supply NFL stalwarts to appear at the Mapes event. Don was in charge and never failed to deliver top names.
Burke’s other local connection was the fact that he had played high school football in Oakland with Boston Red Sox MVP Jackie Jensen, a permanent resident of Crystal Bay and Lee DeLauer, longtime Renoite and a “Who’s Who” at the University of Nevada during his college days.