PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Jon Burnett was one of Pittsburgh’s favorite on-air personalities for 36 years.
At KDKA-TV, he co-hosted Evening Magazine, Pittsburgh Today, did the weather and co-hosted Pittsburgh Today Live for 11 years.
Burnett has always been known for his adventurous and spontaneous spirit, willing to try anything from rappelling down a skyscraper, driving a jeep over rocks, or racing on Ferris wheels.
Burnett retired five years ago at the age of 65, but many people are unaware that he has since faced major health issues and was recently diagnosed. His neurologist says he suspects CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. It is suspected because the only way to definitively diagnose CTE is to perform a brain autopsy.
Before Burnett was on television, he was on another stage: the football field. Burnett and her family wanted to share their story for several reasons. To help everyone better understand CTE, to help those who may be facing it, to eliminate the stigma surrounding brain diseases, and to continue Burnett’s legacy of giving back to the Pittsburgh community.
Jon, his wife Debbie and his adult children Samantha and Eric sat down to talk with KDKA-TV’s Kristine Sorensen, who remains friends with Burnett after 20 years working together as anchors and as co-hosts of PTL.
Kristine says she’s seen Burnett’s short-term memory deteriorate over the past few years, as well as his gait and voice. She asked him about it and how retirement is going.
“I spent some of my time wishing my voice wouldn’t disappear,” Burnett said. “It’s just, it’s the best I can do. It’s a good day. My wife Debbie is here. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my throat?
Burnett asks his wife of 48 years to help him remember a lot of things. And through it all, he understands what’s going on.
“It’s my brain. Someone would have to be,” he says.
Kristine asks Jon, “What’s it like when you can’t remember something? Is it frustrating or what are you going through?”
“It’s not as frustrating as it used to be,” Burnett says, “because I’m getting used to it. I guess it’s familiar.”
Jon’s short-term memory has been declining for 10 years, but other symptoms have worsened over the past two years, including shuffling movements and reduced facial expression.
Debbie hasn’t left him alone at all since he choked and is now on a soft diet. He is not allowed to drive. He even had to be hospitalized several times recently.
“There have definitely been challenges,” Debbie says. “It’s not what you think about retirement.”
Jon’s daughter, Samantha, and son, Eric, are quick to focus on the positive; how their father always enjoys spending time with family and playing with his five grandchildren, aged 1 to 13.
Eric says, “He’s still there. He’s still having conversations with (his grandchildren). He’s still running around and picking them up and having sweet times with them, and so that in itself is a blessing.”
Samantha says, “In his heart and deep down, he’s still a dad. He loves his family. He loves people. He loves the outdoors. And none of that has changed.”
Jon adds: “I still have my kids and my grandkids to chase around the house. I will never, ever give up, even if I crawl on my hands and knees.
“Life wouldn’t be life without them. You’ll know one day,” he tells Kristine.
So after years of tests and doctor appointments, UPMC cognitive neurologist Dr. Joseph Malone ruled out all other possible causes and diagnosed Jon with suspected CTE.
Kristine asks Jon, “What did you think when the doctor told you you suspected CTE, which results from head trauma?
Jon replied: “So at first I was kind of proud because that meant I did my job. Head first, head up, mask here, straight to the head or the gut or whatever. But whoever I attacked or blocked “I did a number on most of them, but ultimately I paid the price with the concussions I had over the years, on several between them.”
Jon played football in Knoxville, Tennessee starting at age 10.
“I played both ways in high school. I was a fullback and a defensive end,” Jon said.
He was eventually recruited to play defensive end at the University of Tennessee. During his years on the field, Jon suffered two major concussions in which he was knocked unconscious: one during practice at the Gator Bowl where he was hit so hard that it split his helmet.
He estimates he used his head to hit another player 30 to 40 times per game, amounting to hundreds of hits over a decade, which is one of the main reasons Jon’s neurologist suspects a CTE.
“The main risk factor is what we call repetitive head injury, or RHI, and that basically reflects multiple blows to the head,” Dr. Malone said.
Jon’s wife Debbie said: “I think we knew it in the back of our minds. I think he always said, ‘It’s because of all the beatings I took.’ ”
Like many children, football was Jon’s passion from a young age.
“I quickly discovered that I liked the contact, which is of course why my head is so messed up today. And I liked the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team .
“Scoring touchdowns, intercepting passes, making a big tackle behind the line of scrimmage – all those things I did, and you know, all those things still motivate me to this day. But would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I try to protect my head a little more? I would have tried, but I don’t know if it would have helped or not.
There’s no way to tell exactly what head injuries caused Jon’s suspected CTE, another reason why researchers are trying to study people who played all kinds of contact sports.
Doctors still don’t know why some people with head injuries get CTE and others don’t, how to completely prevent it while playing contact sports, or how to treat it.
Jon and his family want to share his story to help others and prevent more people from developing it, including by making the sport safer.
His son, Eric, said: “Even though a lot of what we’re discussing can be considered negative and sad, I think that, again, what we’re doing right now, what you’re doing, Dad, right now it’s totally Jon Burnett – looking at the positive in every situation and thinking about the good you can do for others.”
Jon said: “And I’ll never forget the things I watched as these guys grew into the beautiful adults you see here. I’m talking about my daughter, Samantha, my son, Eric, and my wife, Debbie is my rock.”
It’s an emotional journey for everyone who loves Jon, but it’s hoped that this football and TV star will also shine a light on the potential dangers of repeated head injuries and help everyone better understand their impact.
“If I can help someone on this road, who is on this road or who will be on this road in the years to come, I feel better about being able to do it and being able to learn from my experiences,” he said .
Jon participates in research at the National Sports Brain Bank at the University of Pittsburgh, where scientists are working to learn more about CTE. They need any athlete who has played a sport with a higher risk of head injury to take part in their study to learn more about why some people get it and others don’t and what can be done about it. prevent and treat them.
The study involves an annual online questionnaire and agreeing to donate your brain in the event of your death. The brain can be removed without any modification to the rest of the body and can still allow for a traditional funeral and open casket.
If you would like to sign up or learn more, visit the National Sports Brain Bank website here.
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