WHITEFISH BAY — Nicholas Burns stands out among Milwaukee area prep athletes for his tireless spirit, ceaseless focus and constant commitment to relatively sub-par teams. He stands out among all his peers for his faith and selfless action.
“Being captain of the baseball and football teams is hard, because (Whitefish Bay) Dominican is a small, Catholic high school. We don’t have the huge numbers to draw from for sports like football,” said Capuchin Fr. Bob Wheelock, former chaplain at Dominican. “And to keep your own spirits up when you lose game after game, so often by just a little bit … is difficult. Keeping your team’s spirits up is really something else. I never saw him lose composure; throw something out of frustration, for instance. He always has just handled it.”
“He’s a very good example of a Catholic kid,” Fr. Wheelock said. “He’s human, and he’s real tough. But he believes in God, and you know his faith means something to him.”
Burns, who graduated from Dominican May 27, was recently named Hometown Hero-Athlete of the Year for Wisconsin by Sports Faith International (SFI).
The kind of “outstanding and humble dedication to his team … on and off the field,” that Burns displays are “becoming more and more a rarity amongst coaches and athletes. His nomination and success on the team are a tribute to his faith and commitment,” said SFI founder Patrick McCaskey.
Burns was honored at SFI’s annual awards ceremony in February in Chicago. He was one of 19 prep school athletes from around the country recognized, all of whom carry grade point averages of 3.0 or better. The ceremony also honored a handful of prep coaches, and inducted three individuals into the Sports Faith Hall of Fame: Jamie Moyer, a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, veteran Major League Baseball coach Rich Donnelly and Pittsburgh Steelers patriarch Art Rooney.
Burns is “brilliant,” Fr. Wheelock said. “He’s got more brains than I ever had; a real bright kid able to do all kinds of things. What stands out though – Nicholas is such a natural leader. I noticed through the years that when he does things, others naturally start with him and follow him.”
With a 4.0 GPA, Burns was co-valedictorian at Dominican, while maintaining leadership roles in two sports.
“Mainly I’m a receiver, and a linebacker or defensive back in football,” he said. “In baseball I mostly play third base, though I also do some catching.”
Burns also received the Knight Cornerstone award from Chris Banach, the varsity football coach.
“Dominican’s been struggling for a while, and coach wanted to recognize four seniors whom he built the program around. I was chosen as one of those for my leadership,” he said.
“I’ve never actually been very good at sports,” Burns admitted. “Maybe good enough to start.”
“Yeah, he’s not a star necessarily,” his mom, Rita Burns, agreed. “But he’s pretty athletic. He’s also responsible, coachable and listens well. Plus, he tries hard and gives his best, so he usually does pretty well.”
That could be applied to nearly all he does. Burns didn’t attend the SFI award ceremony because he was singing and dancing in the school musical’s chorus line.
“He was in ‘Hairspray’ that Sunday afternoon,” Rita Burns said. “We wanted to go, but we had to make a change when the play came.”
“I like doing just about everything,” Burns said. “I played both baseball and football all four years of high school. I was in the musical last year, too. I do a little tutoring occasionally.”
The Burns family – his father teaches at Riverside High School, his mother is a nurse, and his younger sister Sarah, is a Dominican freshman – are all involved at SS. Peter and Paul Parish on Milwaukee’s east side. Nick is an acolyte and sings in the choir.
“I also volunteer at the Catholic East Fish Fry and different fundraisers,” he said. “I’ve worked the parish block party and Peter and Paul’s booth at the Summer Solstice East Side festival. I also help set up holiday decorations at the church – for Easter, Christmas, Advent and all that.”
At Dominican, “I’m involved in campus ministry,” he said. “I went on a Kairos retreat, and it was the best experience of my life. Since then, I’ve led two others. I always wear a cross from the retreat. It’s incredibly meaningful for me. It reminds me of the retreat, so I can always go back to that; how I felt then. It also reminds me to be compassionate, and to consider the loving decisions I’m supposed to make.
“Faith is always in the back of my mind with the actions I take,” he said. “I always consider what would be the right thing to do. I like to enjoy what I’m doing, so long as I’m having fun and doing the right thing.”
Fr. Wheelock noted Burns’ natural spirituality.
“Whenever I have helped him with prayer, he took my direction without having me take over,” he said. “I advised him to read through all the New Testament Gospels. Just for 10 minutes per day, and when you get through, re-read them – just to come to know Christ.”
“He did some of that, busy as he is,” the priest said. “I’ve certainly told him that I saw something in him, and hoped he might think of the priesthood some day. He would be a good one.”
Burns said he is “definitely too young to rule (the priesthood) out,” but he will attend the University of Notre Dame in fall, and, for now, study computer science or computer engineering.
“We’re glad he’s getting recognized,” Rita Burns said. “He’s a good kid with a bright future. We’re very proud of him. I’m sad to see him go. He’s nice to have him around. He’s very helpful.”
“The thing that can get lost here,” Fr. Wheelock noted, is that “Nick also has good parents who live a decent life, make sacrifices – as for an expensive school – and support him 100 percent. When he performs – they’re there. I’m sure they do the same for his sister. This all just goes to show that a good, solid Catholic family produces a good, solid, young Catholic man.”