If you attended a high school football or basketball tournament in the state of Utah anytime in the past three or four decades, chances are you ran across Johnny Burt.
The short, skinny, bald, bespectacled man with an irascible sense of humor and an infectious smile was a ubiquitous presence at Utah High School Activities Association events for more than 30 years, serving as a volunteer, doing everything from handing out stat sheets to sweeping postgame floors. Along the way, he endeared himself to athletes, coaches, referees, statisticians, parents, fans, and everyone in between.
He was born with phenylketonuria (PKU), the build-up of an amino acid called phenylalanine in the body which can cause learning disabilities. The incurable disease is very rare, with fewer than 20,000 cases in the United States per year.
Burt grew up in South Salt Lake, but spent much of his life living in Sandy. While brother Doug and sister-in-law Peggy provided care for him, he was a longtime employee of the Murray Parks and Recreation Department, he lived on his own until the past couple years, and was a master at navigating public transit but also capable of driving himself around until about six years ago, according to Kevin Dustin, the athletic director at Salt Lake Community College, who has been Burt’s friend of 40-odd years.
“He was born with certain limitations, but he made it through life pretty well, and he did so in large part by being adopted by so many members of the community, especially in the sports world,” said Dustin. “He is connected with people at sporting events. He just became a very endearing personality.”
Indeed, Burt loved the camaraderie of sports, and so became something of an addict for attending games.
More than once, Dustin remembered, he’d get multiple calls a day from Burt, letting him know that he was leaving a hockey game to attend an amateur softball game for 8-year-olds, following which he’d head off to some high school game or another.
And while Burt was also a fixture at Salt Lake Bees and Utah Grizzlies games, it was high school sporting events where he was known best.
“He was kind of a legend at state meets, particularly basketball and football — it seemed like he was always there,” said Tom Wharton, an ex-Salt Lake Tribune writer who has covered high school sports tournaments for more than half a century. “The [UHSAA] usually had him pass out stats to [writers], which was particularly a big job if we were at the Huntsman Center and working in the upper press box. He was kind of a tease — you’d want to get the stats, because you were on deadline, and he’d kind of hold ’em away from you, you’d try to grab [the stat sheet] and he’d pull it away. And then he’d just get this big, infectious smile like he was having a great time. You hardly ever saw him not smiling.”
Even though Burt was having a good time, he also took his volunteer responsibilities extremely seriously.
Dustin, who used to work for the UHSAA, recalled with a laugh the one time he unthinkingly went to pass out stat sheets to media members, only to have an irate Burt confront him and remind him that was his jobs.
In 2018, Burt was honored by the Activities Association upon his “retirement” from volunteering “after over 30 years of service to Utah students.”
“The passion around high school sports is what unites our communities, and Johnny certainly had that passion,” Rob Cuff, UHSAA’s Executive Director said Wednesday in a statement. “Johnny’s life was marked by an inordinate amount of hardship and struggle, but the same passion he displayed for high school activities allowed him to overcome the many adversities he faced during his life. Our thoughts and condolences are with all his family and friends during this difficult time.”
Dustin first met Burt in 1983 while working as an assistant basketball coach at Alta High, and Burt was the “team manager.” Because Dustin befriended him then, Burt remained a constant fixture in his life throughout the years, even as he moved to Cache Valley, then returned to the Salt Lake Valley to work for UHSAA and SLCC.
“Never a day went by [I didn’t hear from him]. In fact, if 5 o’clock came by and I hadn’t got a call from Johnny, then I’d start to worry,” Dustin said. “Usually he’d call me five, six, seven times a day.”
Despite his cognitive disability, Burt apparently had an innate knack for making lifelong friends. Dustin recalled heading to Burt’s 60th birthday party figuring there would be a few people there, only to discover a line of people waiting to greet him that took 30 minutes to navigate.
“What he really liked was the interaction with people. And when people recognized him, when they called him by name, he was instantly a friend of theirs,” said Dustin. “He was very loyal … once you helped him, once you recognized or acknowledged him in any way, you had a friend for life.
“… They broke the mold with him.”