Jay Burton said one of his biggest fears after his son Connor passed away in 2009 was that he would be forgotten.
But eight years after his death, the memory of Connor Burton is as strong as ever in Marlette and Brown City, the two communities he managed to make a big impact on during his 10 years on Earth.
“Any parent that’s lost a child, one of the biggest fears is that your child will be forgotten,” Jay Burton said. “They never are, but that’s any parent’s fear. But he’ll be a part of this community for the rest of our lives.”
This past Friday, the two schools met in Marlette for the eighth and final Team Connor Classic, a game that has celebrated Connor’s life since the year after it ended. On this night, Marlette came away with a 49-40 victory, winning the game for the eighth straight time in what would have been Connor’s senior year.
“It’s a good time to call it quits,” Jay Burton said.
On Thursday, April 16, 2009, Connor went to his gymnastics and baseball practices before shooting baskets outside his house until the sun set and he could no longer see the hoop.
It was a typical day for the energetic 10-year-old, who was described by many as a gym rat and a lover of all sports.
“Whatever sport was in season, he would be ready to play,” said Connor’s uncle Tony Burton, Brown City’s athletic director and former boys basketball coach. “During the winter, basketball was something that was a high priority with him. Obviously, he got taken from us too soon, but he sure loved sports.”
He was good at them, too. His friend Hunter Kelly, now a senior on Marlette’s boys basketball team, said Connor was a better basketball player than most of their friends when they were young.
In the Thumb, Burtons and basketball are synonymous, and Connor seemed poised to be the next in that line – even if he was coming through the Marlette program and not the Brown City one his uncle was leading and for which his cousins had starred. Connor was even a manager, along with his cousin Caleb Muxlow (who is a senior on this year’s Brown City team), for his uncle’s team.
On Friday, April 17, 2009, Connor, who it would be found suffered from Long QT – a heart rhythm disorder – passed away less than 24 hours after shooting his last shot.
“Basically the electrical system in the heart, which tells it to beat, his wasn’t running correctly,” Jay Burton said. “The thing about it was, you would have never known. … I went (into Connor’s room that morning) and the only weird thing he said to me was, ‘Dad, why did you open the door so fast?’
“I didn’t think anything of it, I flicked his light on, and when I came back he hadn’t made it out of bed. He had cardiac arrest.”
A tradition is born
The following basketball season, the Team Connor Classic was born, and the two communities that Connor loved showed their love for him. There were tributes and tears, and a great basketball rivalry was all of a sudden elevated to another level.
“It’s always been a good game between Brown City and Marlette,” Tony Burton said. “We border each other, we’re in the same county, so it’s usually a pretty good game when we play, regardless of records. It means a lot, and for both teams when we play each other, we want to win. But when the game’s over we still have our friendships and our associations with each other.”
While they compete for bragging rights, and often for Greater Thumb Conference East championships, Marlette and Brown City actually have a long history of coming together for good causes.
“Us and Marlette, we have a great relationship,” Brown City High School principal Neil Kohler said. “We do the pink out game in football every other year at our place, we do the Team Connor game. We did a basketball game last year where both teams gathered water for the Flint crisis. So, it’s probably our biggest rival, but also our biggest partnership. When they came to our place about three weeks ago our local rotary did a pancake dinner and had about 400 people come in from Marlette hospice to raise money. The two communities really come together.”
The Team Connor game has a different feeling than most tribute games because of its unique connection of the family to two tight-knit communities.
That was apparent in the latest edition, as Connor’s family – his father, his mother Sue, and his sisters Lindsey and Annie – were given a signed basketball from the Brown City community, and a bouquet of flowers and a blanket tiled with memories from all eight Team Connor Classics from the Marlette community. After the game, the family handed out medals to each player on both teams, receiving from them many long, heartfelt hugs.
It’s not easy for the family, especially in a year when Connor would have been the one on the court with his classmates enjoying a season that has seen the Red Raiders go 18-1 and clinch the GTC East title.
“This is only the second game I’ve watched the Marlette boys play (this season),” Jay Burton said. “I can’t watch them. I see Hunter Kelly; the kid stands a foot taller than me. What would Connor have been? He’s the 10-year-old in front of me and all of his friends are 18 getting ready to graduate high school.
“Caleb Muxlow, his cousin who plays for Brown City, I can go watch simply because he’s family. But this is only the second time I’ve seen (Marlette) play. It just hurts too much.”
Each team came out for warm-ups in the same Team Connor shirts, which combined the green of Brown City and the red of Marlette, and read “One Last Time.” They sat on the court before the game to watch the presentations and a slideshow of photos from Connor’s life and Team Connor Classics past, and stood with one another during the national anthem.
“I think this one was a special night mainly because these were his classmates,” Marlette coach Chris Storm said. “The rivalry has gotten stronger and stronger between us. It was there because of the league before, but it adds a lot of pressure to both teams and you could see that in the game.
“But it means a lot to see how many people come out for the event. The pastor comes back; he’s been out of the area for three years. It’s a great environment for kids to play high school basketball. It’s a District or a Regional feel almost on a regular-season night.”
As the game tipped off, Marlette took the court with four players. It’s a newer, but impactful tradition that was added in the years Connor would have been playing in the game.
“It was quite a surprise (the first year),” Jay Burton said.
It’s a sign that Connor is certainly not forgotten, and while the Team Connor Classic may be going away, anyone who played in one, coached one or simply attended one, will never forget it.
“It means that we’re remembering a great kid that would have given a lot more to his community if he had more time,” Kelly said. “It shows that us as a senior class, the way we represent ourselves as a team and a community, is reflecting who he was. It means a lot because he would have been a senior this year, he probably would have been playing with us. He was better than me, he was better than a lot of these kids, so he probably would have been starting, too.
“So it means a lot to play in remembrance of him, because he’s missing out on all these memories.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Annie Burton, Connor Burton’s younger sister, presents Marlette boys basketball coach Chris Storm with the “Team Connor Classic” trophy after Friday’s game. (Middle) Hunter Kelly hugs Connor’s father Jay Burton as the family welcomes both teams' players. (Below) The game program from the night celebrated Connor Burton’s life and legacy. (Photos by Paul Costanzo.)
HOWARDSVILLE - There is a sign that hangs inside Howardsville Christian School's tiny gymnasium that accurately depicts the mission for the Eagles during the 2023-24 boys basketball season.
It reads "In Jesus' name we play."
Ken Sparks and the eight players on his varsity basketball roster have challenged themselves to help one another understand what it means to give their season to God.
"My goal is to help these boys find gratitude in playing for a greater power than themselves," said Sparks, a varsity standout himself at Howardsville from 1996-2000, member of the 1,000-point club and an honorable mention all-stater his senior year.
Nestled on the border between St. Joseph and Cass counties along Bent Road, Howardsville Christian, a Division 4 school for its sports with fewer than 80 students, has enjoyed a rich tradition of spiritual learning both in the classroom and on the court and playing fields.
The contribution of many talented athletes from several families has been instrumental in Howardsville's athletic success for years, especially this school year.
Howardsville won District titles this fall in boys soccer and girls volleyball. Now the Eagles hope to carry that momentum over to the basketball court.
With four starters returning, Sparks is looking for Howardsville’s boys team to battle for supremacy in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph League and improve on a 13-10 record from last season. The Eagles finished 7-7 in the league last winter and endured a disappointing District Semifinal loss to Marcellus. Howardsville Christian had won its District the season in 2021.
"We competed well with all the teams on our schedule and lost to some teams we shouldn't have," Sparks said. "There are eight teams in our conference, and this season we need to beat Benton Harbor Countryside to be the top team. It's been a good league for us."
Senior twin brothers Colin and Dylan Muldoon return for Howardsville, along with junior cousin Kaden Sparks, son of the head coach, and junior John Paul Rose.
The Muldoon brothers both are beginning their third year as varsity starters.
"Working together as a team is something we really want to do well. A lot of teams set a goal of winning Districts. The last two years we've fallen short of that goal. It's definitely something we want to achieve this year," Colin Muldoon said.
Dylan Muldoon echoed that sentiment.
"Our success in soccer makes us want to attain the same goals in basketball. We know we are capable of reaching those, so I think it makes us want to pull things together," Dylan Muldoon said. "There's a lot of long-distance running in soccer, but there's also a lot of quickness and turning in basketball, especially when you're guarding or driving around someone. You just have to be quick."
Kaden Sparks, another three-year starter, will be Howardsville's best shooting guard.
"Winning Districts is achievable. We have to learn to work together. I played summer ball, and the biggest takeaway is that it taught me that I have to always give 100-percent effort out there. We had a great soccer season, and It’s taught us a lot about accountability," Kaden Sparks said.
Rose will be Howardsville Christian's starting point guard. He has been a starter since his freshman year, along with Kaden Sparks.
"The team chemistry and communication we had in soccer easily transfers over to basketball. As our point guard, it's important for me to try to get the ball to other guys who have open looks," Rose said. "I want to be more aggressive defensively, push the ball up the floor more and increase my scoring."
In addition, Ken Sparks believes the physicality a majority of his team learned from soccer will be a big benefit on the basketball floor.
"You build up your physicality from playing soccer with having to always body up. Watching them play sometimes hurts me, but that's what I want them to do in basketball. It helps them to want to draw contact and be physical on the floor," Ken Sparks said.
The lack of upperclassmen on Howardsville's varsity the last couple of years gave Rose and Kaden Sparks an immediate opportunity to play as freshmen.
"The fact John Paul and Kaden had that early chance at the varsity level is really paying off now,” Ken Sparks added. “Kaden is an excellent shooter. I want him to get the confidence that I had when I was in high school. He tends to be a little more passive on the floor than I like, but he's finally getting that aggressive nature that you need offensively.”
Kaden, Colin Muldoon and Rose all averaged double-digit scoring last season, while Dylan Muldoon is the Eagles' best defensive player. The Muldoon brothers will serve as Howardsville's team captains.
"Kaden is very self-motivated to become a better basketball player. His goal is to be the best player that he can be," Ken Sparks said. "John Paul is explosive and has really refined his jump shot to where he can be a scoring threat. He sees the floor very well and can really push the ball up the floor without turning it over. We're going to see big strides from him because of his determination and drive.
"Colin is a great overall player. He's a threat from the outside and can score inside with his height as well. If we're going to be successful, he and Dylan have to bring the same drive that John Paul and Kaden bring to the court.”
"I've coached all of the guys on our team for the last three seasons except one,” Sparks added. “We talk about being well-rounded. These guys are the best academically and spiritual leaders in our school."
Howardsville Christian’s most well-known alumni is Dylan Jergens, the third-leading scorer in state history with 2,782 career points.
During the fall soccer season, the Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose helped Howardsville win a second-straight District title. The Eagles then lost 5-0 in the Regional Semifinal to eventual Division 4 champion Muskegon Western Michigan Christian. Both Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose were named to the first-team all-BCS and District soccer squads.
The Muldoons were the two main catalysts in the Eagles' soccer run, along with Lukas Krueger. Dylan Muldoon had 28 goals and nine assists, while Colin Muldoon posted 14 goals and eight assists. Krueger added 19 goals to go with 16 assists. Kaden Sparks had five goals and four assists, and Rose added three goals and three assists.
Steve Muldoon, Colin and Dylan's father and Howardsville's head boys soccer coach, sees many correlations between soccer and basketball that will bring the Eagles success in hoops this winter.
"Communication is key. A team that doesn't talk on the field/court isn't going to win. They learn how to correct and encourage one another to deal with problems without getting too negative," Steve Muldoon said. "Individually, they learn how to anticipate. There isn't much difference between anticipating a pass and stepping in front of it in soccer or basketball or making a hard run down the court/field to get open for a layup/counterattack. They learn how to react and make the correct decision under pressure. The skills needed to do it in soccer and basketball are different, but most of it is mental and that carries over."
Determination was another big factor for Howardsville's soccer success this fall.
"We beat Lansing Christian this fall in a weekend soccer tournament and they are a much bigger and physical team than us, but we managed to beat them," Colin Muldoon said. "That win gave us a lot of confidence for the remainder of the season that we could beat anyone."
The family dynamic doesn't stop with Howardsville's boys basketball team.
Senior Kyla Sparks, Ken's daughter and Kaden's older sister, is one of three cousins on the roster for a Howardsville girls team that finished 12-11 last year. All five starters are back for that Eagles team as well.
"As a team, we want to improve on last year's record. With all our starters back, we feel we have a good shot to finish at the top of both our conference and District. Most of our basketball team also played volleyball this fall, and we view us all as family," Kyla Sparks said. "Being able to play with my two cousins makes good lifelong memories."
Kyla Sparks, who averaged 12 points per game her junior year, starts with sophomore cousins Kelsie Muldoon and Kate Evans. Those three also started on the varsity volleyball team that captured its first District title since 1997.
Coincidently, the mothers of Kyla, Kelsie and Kate were all on the 1997 District champion volleyball team.
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Colin Muldoon drives to the basket against his twin brother Dylan Muldoon during recent Howardsville Christian boys basketball practice. (Middle) Eagles varsity boys basketball coach Ken Sparks, far left, is pictured by the school's trophy case with his four returning starters Colin Muldoon, Dylan Muldoon, Kaden Sparks and John Paul Rose. (Below) The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (Top and middle photos by Scott Hassinger. District championship photos courtesy of Howardsville Christian School.)