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Community loses a giant in Burton

Ron Burton, the first draft choice in Patriots history, lost his long battle with cancer just before midnight Saturday, according to his oldest son, Steve. Ron Burton was 67.

Burton's legacy extends beyond the 4,249 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns he amassed in 69 games with New England (1960-65). Described by former teammate Gino Cappelletti as a "tremendous running back," Burton was a two-time All-American at Northwestern University, but he was a Hall of Famer off the field by virtue of his post-career philanthropic endeavors.

"Ron Burton was a compassionate man who dedicated his life to helping others and reinvested everything he had back into his community," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said yesterday in a statement.

"He was an inspiration to everyone he came in contact with and positively impacted the lives of thousands of children. On behalf of the entire Patriots organization, we extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Jo Ann, and the entire Burton family.

"Ron Burton was a tremendous asset to the New England community," Kraft added. "We are all saddened by his loss."

Many shared in those sentiments, and nearly all of them, it seemed, attempted to express them to the Burtons yesterday. By midday, Steve Burton's cellphone could not accept any more messages. "It's been unbelievable," he said. "The phones haven't stopped ringing one iota. That just tells me a lot about my dad and how much he's loved in the community."

After their 31-10 victory over the Eagles, the Patriots dedicated the game ball to Burton's memory. "Our hearts go out to him and his family," coach Bill Belichick said. "[We] recognize him as the first Patriot."

Nearly two decades ago, in 1985, Burton purchased some 305 acres of land in Hubbardston and founded the Ron Burton Training Village, a sports camp for inner-city, underprivileged children. Thousands of New England youth, according to a team statement, attended, along with kids from Florida to California.

The Patriots recently established the Ron Burton Community Service Award, which annually recognizes the player who makes the greatest impact in the New England community. Joe Andruzzi was the first recipient.

"Ron Burton is a prototype of what we want in a football player," Kraft said in June. "The giving of his time and his generosity to help improve the lives of others is something we stress here with the Patriots, and I feel Ron best embodies what we've tried to preach to our players over the years."

"Ron was somebody that I admired, somebody that has a much larger identity than just a football player," said Cappelletti, now the Patriots' radio analyst. "The things he did for youngsters, the effort he put into helping them get on the right track, was monumental. He had a vision and a dream to do the things that he was able to do, and because of that, he was blessed."

Steve Burton said that when his father was diagnosed with cancer, doctors gave him 1-3 years to live. That was more than four years ago. Ron Burton spent his last moments listening to his family, all gathered around his hospital bed, sing his favorite hymns. "He fought till the end," Steve Burton said. "I never heard him complain, never heard him ask, `Why?' "

"He told me that we never question God during the good times, so don't question him now," said Burton's wife, Jo Ann.

Besides Steve, a sports anchor at WBZ-TV, Ron Burton leaves behind four other children, all of whom, like Steve, graduated from Northwestern (where there is a Ron Burton Academic Advisory Center): Phil, a reporter for Comcast; Elizabeth, a children's author who lives in Dallas; Ron Jr., a member of the Red Sox' community relations staff; and Paul, a minister.

"You could see the commitment of what he was all about as far as the family he raised," Cappelletti said. "And then to do the things he did for inner-city kids, he represented everything that was great in this life. Integrity. Honesty. Respect. And most of all, love. Very, very warm individual."

And, as a player, one driven by a raging competitive fire. Burton, taken first in the American Football League's inaugural draft Nov. 22, 1959, ruptured a disk in his back in a 1963 exhibition game but returned to play in the playoffs and helped the Patriots to victory at Buffalo. "It was an inspirational lift to all of us to see him put a brace on his back and run with great effectiveness," Cappelletti said.

Ron Burton quit giving up his body for football a long time ago, but he never stopped giving. "He never talked about football," Steve Burton said. "Anything I heard about how great my dad was, I heard from someone else."

"Sometimes you get so close to greatness you don't recognize it until after," Cappelletti said. "That's the way I feel about Ron. I was around him, and all this time I was around greatness. Extraordinary individual. The world is going to miss somebody like Ron."

A wake is tentatively scheduled for tomorrow and a funeral Wednesday, with the location to be determined. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Ron Burton Training Village, P.O. Box No. 2, Hubbardston, MA, 01452.

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