Remembering his one grandfather who was captured as a prisoner of war in Italy while serving America during World War II, another grandfather who did a tour of duty during the Korean War and a cousin who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, Tommy Burns
felt compelled to do something more than simply dominate for Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.)
every time he took the mound this spring.
Through the generosity of family, friends and fans, not to mention his gifted right arm, Burns initiated Strikeouts4warriors, his personal passion play for the Wounded Warrior Project. For each time he punched out an opposing hitter, he received donations ranging between $1-10 toward assisting injured veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After pitching only a handful of varsity innings last season, Burns' breakthrough as a bona fide ace paid off big for both the Wounded Warriors and Don Bosco Prep: By raising more than $40 per strikeout aggregate, the junior's 62 punchouts while going 9-0 for one of the country's top teams helped him amass more than $2,500 for his charitable endeavor.
In fact, Burns and his family are holding a benefit beefsteak dinner on June 18 to further benefit Strikeouts4warriors – and he plans to continue pitching for his cause his senior season.
"I really feel for the families. I kind of know what they're going through," Burns said. "I really wanted to just do something nice. You can never do anything nice enough for a wounded soldier that served our country. This is the only way I know how. "
Burns' inspiration originally came two years ago through an article he read about former Elmwood Park star hurler Jared Forestieri, who waged his own Strikeouts for Cancer campaign to help the Jimmy V Foundation. However, after hearing the stories about his grandfathers while growing up, he wanted to benefit an "organization that's meaningful to me."
His maternal grandfather, Emil Keller, died when Burns was 8, so he only heard the stories secondhand about how Keller, a captain, got captured as a POW during World War II while serving as a Marine in Italy. As it turns out, no one else in the family knew about how Keller hid in the Italian countryside before escaping and coming home until a day or two before he died.
"He never spoke about it," Burns' father William said. "He was a very quiet man."
Meanwhile, William Burns' father, William Sr., had a relatively uneventful tour of duty as a Marine during the Korean War. More recently, Tommy Burns' cousin, another Marine named Greg Yarlborough, served for six months in Afghanistan before returning to American soil. Burns said his cousin might be deployed again soon.
"I appreciate it way more now that one of my family members (served)," Burns said. "Just to know that one of my family members went through that, it toughens me up."
On the mound, Burns is Don Bosco's general – what coach Mark DeMenna calls a "born leader" who impresses in equal parts with his commitment to civic duty and his command of the strikezone. In 45.2 innings over 10 appearances, he used his 90 mph fastball, curveball and changeup to throw two no-hitters and help the Ironmen, the No. 19 team in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Baseball Rankings
, win their first Bergen County tournament title since 2008.
"He's not affected or intimidated by anybody we play," DeMenna said. "He trusts his stuff and attacks the hitter."
Often, when Burns ran the count to two strikes, he would find himself thinking a little bit extra about his fundraising efforts, which helped when he needed to find some extra oomph on his fastball.
"It's fun because you're thinking, 'I want to get the strikeout for these soldiers,'" Burns said.
Burns' breakthrough season did more than raise money for Strikeouts4warriors, though, in that Boston College, Louisville, Michigan, Radford, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Virginia and Winthrop have shown increasing interest in his big-game ability. A big summer could potentially help position him as a pro prospect next June; he will try out for the Yankees' Area Code and East Coast Pro teams June 11-15.
Rest assured, every time Burns takes the ball from here on out, he will be thinking about his cousin, his grandfathers and everyone who has ever served our country.
"I can't tell you enough about the kid," DeMenna said. "He's the model athlete."