LOWELL - Sixty-one years after a doctor gravely informed a polio-stricken, 12-year-old Robert "Ziggy" Burns that he'd probably never walk again, the former Lowell High School quarterback remains eager and able to put down his crutches, pull a football from his car's trunk, and chuck it to you deep.
On Thursday, Oct. 3, between 5 and 9 p.m., here's hoping that someone with a good pair of hands will be seated at a rear table in Lenzi's Catering and Function Facility in Dracut, ready to a grab a football spiraling their way.
That night at Lenzi's, Burns, 74, a community/business-development officer at Sage Bank and member of the March of Dimes' Lowell board of directors, will be formally honored at the March of Dimes Signature Chef's
"I do have post-polio syndrome. It has me on crutches, but I consider myself a very fortunate guy," said Burns, who was tickled to return Wednesday to his cherished youth stomping ground of Cawley Stadium to take a photo with The Sun, and discuss his triumph over odds that were highly stacked against those who contracted polio in a nationwide epidemic before the Salk vaccine was developed in 1955.
Burns cannot remember how he came by the nickname "Ziggy" at a young age, a question he's constantly asked. He can remember vividly, however, how he became stricken with polio at his parents'Rye Beach house in 1952 at age 12, and the lengthy hospital stay that followed. It saw him placed in isolation and in an Iron Lung, bedridden through his 13th birthday and months after.
He can also clearly recall the grim words of Dr. David Grace, who informed Ziggy's parents next to his hospital bed that, "We don't think your son will ever walk again." His mother melted into the arms of a parish priest. His father looked stunned, Burns recalled.
"Son, did you hear what I said?" said Ziggy, quoting the doctor, 61 years later. "You may never walk again."
The boy remembers looking back at the doctor and responding, "The hell I won't!"
At that, Burns remembers a female assistant in the room slyly flashed him a thumbs-up. Through a grindingly difficult period of several years of physical rehabilitation that followed, Burns had one overriding desire that dangled before his mind's eye like a carrot before a horse: He wanted to rise, and walk, and run again to fulfill his childhood dream of playing football for Lowell High and legendary LHS head coach Ray Riddick, a former member of the NFL's Green Bay Packers, he said.
"I'd run over to Cawley Stadium to practice every single day. All I ever wanted to do in those days was play high-school football for Coach Riddick," Burns said. "There were certain exercises I had to do, and after hard work and many prayers to St. Jude, I finally fulfilled my dream to play quarterback for Lowell High... I absolutely loved it."
In 2005, Burns' story was featured at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., as part of the museum's display on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Salk vaccine. Burns would have gladly tossed the Smithsonian's curators an autographed football, if only they'd asked.
The March of Dimes, started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 in response to the polio epidemic that struck thousands during the Great Depression, owns a special place in Burns' heart. The organization fully paid for Ziggy's recovery, with his family never receiving a single medical bill through his ordeal, he recalled.
"The March of Dimes means so much to me, and this award means so much to me," said Burns. "The work this organization does is so important to so many, we need to continue it."
March of Dimes State Director Ed Doherty said the fundraising goal for the Oct. 3 event at Lenzi's is $100,000, money that will be spent on the organization's mission of reducing birth defects, premature births and infant mortality. Sponsorships available for the event - including Pioneer, 75th Anniversary, Diamond, Gold, and Silver tables ranging from $1,500 to $10,000 - come with preferred seating for a number of guests for the foodand wine-tasting auctions, plus space in the program book, and company signs on site.
For more information, contact Doherty at 508-335-3550, edoherty@marchofdimes, or visit www.marchofdimes.com/ma.
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