Hall of Famer, Three-Time Team USA Player Jimmy Burke Dies

Jimmy Burke, a National Lacrosse Hall of Fame member and three-time gold medalist with the U.S. men’s national team, died April 8 following a lengthy battle with prostate cancer.

A native of Huntington, N.Y., Burke starred at Cortland State, helping the Red Dragons win the 1975 NCAA Division II championship. He was a captain of the 1977 and 1978 Cortland teams and earned All-America honors in 1976, 1977 and 1978.

Following his graduation, he moved on to the Long Island Lacrosse Club, where he played for more than a decade. He helped the club win six United States Club Lacrosse Association championships and later played club lacrosse in California. The Long Island Lacrosse Club recently honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1991, he received the Krongard Trophy for his contributions to club lacrosse.

Burke, an alternate on the 1978 U.S. team, made his first U.S. roster in 1982, helping Team USA beat Australia 22-14 to win gold in Baltimore. In 1986, Burke served as a team captain and was named all-world and the tournament’s Outstanding Defensemen as the U.S. beat Canada 18-9 in the gold medal game in Toronto. Burke earned his third gold medal in 1990 when the U.S. defeated Canada 19-15 in the championship game in Perth, Australia.

Burke was a key factor despite playing an unfamiliar role in the 1990 world championship.

“We got into the finals against Canada and we didn’t really have a real faceoff guy that year,” said Vinnie Sombrotto, a teammate with Burke three times on the U.S. teams. “Early in the game [Canada’s] Kevin Alexander was winning all the faceoffs. We’re thinking this is gonna be close if we can’t get any. [Coach] Arlyn Marshall put Jimmy in to take draws just to harass the guys. We had Dave Pietramala and Steve Mitchell on the wings – they’re both Hall of Famers. Jimmy did a great job. We started to get our fair share and that turned the game.”

Winning was a big part of the legacy for Burke, a 1994 inductee into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know if the game has seen someone who won as much as he did,” said Bob Mongeluzzi, his high school teammate and best friend of more than 50 years. “He won a national championship in college, he won six club championships at a time when there was no professional lacrosse and he won three world championships. Then when he started playing masters and summer tournaments, he won multiple times in Vail, Lake Placid and Florida. He was still playing as his bones were being destroyed by cancer. If that doesn’t describe his tenacity, incredible will and strength of spirit, I don’t know what does.”

Burke recounted his career in a podcast last year with Fred Opie, one of his teammates on the 1990 U.S. team. One of the topics he spoke about was overcoming challenges throughout his lacrosse career.

“I was the kid who was too small, there were other people ahead of me,” Burke said. “At one point in high school, I was the eighth guy on an eight-man defensive team on the depth chart…I guess I was kind of being a pain at practice and coach stopped the practice and had this guy McGuire go against me one-on-one in front of the team. He scorched me like five times in a row. Didn’t say another word. Blew the whistle and on went practice. I went home that night and cried in the shower for about an hour and said, ‘That will never happen to me again.’ Two years later, I won a national championship at Cortland.”

“He was an incredible player, all 5-foot-9 of him,” said Bill Beroza, his teammate on the 1982 U.S. team and a longtime friend. “He was probably in the best shape of anyone on the team. His stick skills were immaculate. He had vision. He could cover the big guys, the fast guys. He could take the ball away and he could clear the ball.

“He was an incredible teammate and friend and always had a smile on his face. I’ve heard from so many people that knew him and heard stories of how they impacted him. He got into youth lacrosse wherever he went.”

“He was an undersized guy for even then, but he was as tenacious as they come,” Sombrotto said. “He was fearless, the way he ran through a pack to pick up a groundball. He was just such a solid guy and a pleasure to be around. He had a great sense of humor — we had so much fun on those teams.”

Part of Burke’s legacy in the sport was how he played the position.

“He probably was the pioneering defenseman that really fueled the transition game,” Mongeluzzi said. “Back before he became a defenseman, a lot of normal defensemen hadn’t played lacrosse, were big football players, lumbering and didn’t have great stick work. Jimmy was fast, tenacious and quick on moving defense to offense. The Bobby Orr of lacrosse, he was really the pioneer in being able to do that.”

Mongeluzzi met Burke in seventh grade and the two decided to give lacrosse a try while seeing the sport for the first time as they were standing in the outfield during tryouts for baseball their freshman year of high school. The friendship thrived over five decades.

“He was my best man, my best friend, the godfather of my only son,” Mongeluzzi said. “He was the most humble, loyal, loving person I’ve ever met. It’s a tragic loss for the game. I coach young women now and I often talk to them about role models. Jim Burke was my role model — a lacrosse player’s lacrosse player.”

Burke is survived by his wife, Lisa, their three children — Christian, Jaury and Jace — and his brother, Tom, and sister, Nancy.

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