BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
CARVER MEMORIES -- Sept. 14, 1966
Don Burgess -- One of Canada's all-time great rugby players
Brought the sport to Western
BELLINGHAM, Wash. --- Don Burgess earned the moniker "Mr. Rugby," as he became a legendary figure in that sport.
That could have been in reference to his hometown of Victoria, B.C., the province of British Columbia or Canada nationally.
He was that good!
Besides being one of Canada's greatest players, Burgess influenced hundreds of youngsters as a coach of the sport and invented a kicking tee used around the world.
Most often called "Burge," Burgess had a passion for rugby that started at an early age and continued throughout his life. His coaching and playing experience ranged from local teams to the international ranks. And his contributions to the sport were enormous as he shared his enthusiasm, knowledge, experience and wisdom with athletes at all levels.
In 2000, Burgess was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. He entered the B.C. Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
Burgess was first known as a track standout. As a junior at Victoria High School in 1951, he set a B.C. provincial prep record for the one mile. His time of 4:35.2 bettered the existing standard by five seconds.
That got the attention of then Western Washington College of Education (now Western Washington University) track & field coach Ray Ciszek, who offered Burgess a job on campus to help pay for tuition ($27.50 per quarter at the time), room and board. That brought him to the Sehome Hill campus the fall after graduating from Victoria High in 1952.
Besides running track and playing rugby at Victoria High, Burgess competed in basketball. But it was his love of and ability in rugby, that made the game his passion. He was lauded for his speed, fitness and toughness in the game.
Burgess introduced the sport of rugby to Western while a student in 1956 and in 1958 was the top player on the first Viking team, which attained varsity status from 1958 to 1966. His coach was Lorne Davies, who went on to a distinguished career as director of athletics at Simon Fraser University.
Burgess attended Western from 1952 to 1958, except for the 1955-56 academic year. For the next nine years, he worked as a pilot, real estate agent, broadcaster, bus driver and advertising representative.
After obtaining his bachelor's degree in physical education from Western in 1967, Burgess embarked on a 30-year teaching and coaching career. He first taught at Brentwood College, then at Mount Newton Junior High (1967-73) and Parkland Secondary (1973-98). His subjects were social studies and physical education.
Burgess was passionate about physical education, coaching and his students. He had a genuine interest in the students' welfare, and thought nothing about going above and beyond should it be necessary.
In 1971, Burgess completed his master's degree at Western. His 1998 Parkland squad took a bronze medal in rugby at the 1998 B.C. High School AA Championships.
Burgess' prowess as a rugby player was respected across Canada. He played fullback, scrum half, standoff and center and was also an outstanding place-kicker.
Burgess competed on the Canadian national team for the first time on Nov. 17, 1962, in an international match against Gosforth (England). Burgess played 17 games for Canada and was its fullback through most of the 1960s.
As a member of the Canadian squad, he went on an eight-game tour of Japan in 1959 and a 17-game tour of the United Kingdom in 1962. On the UK trip he played in 14 contests and was the team's top scorer. In a 3-3 tie against the talented Barbarians, he kicked the equalizing goal from 32 yards late in the game.
Burgess was a member of the British Columbia team, with which he played 33 games. His greatest moment representing the province came in a stunning 8-3 upset of the famed British Lions on Sept. 14, 1966, before 7,000 fans at Empire Stadium in Vancouver.
That contest was described as one of the most brilliant matches in Canadian rugby history. Burgess converted the winning try by Peter Grantham and kicked a penalty goal. In 2006, that B.C. squad became the first group inducted into the B.C. Rugby Hall of Fame.
Two other former Western athletes on that team were Gary Fumano and Dick Layzell.
Most of Burgess' club rugby career was played for the Oak Bay Wanderers. His accurate place-kicking converts on penalty goals led to him winning nine scoring titles during a span of 15 seasons. During those years, Oak Bay won six island and two provincial championships.
Burgess also competed for the Vancouver Island Crimson Tide from 1958 to 1971 before retiring. He coached the Parkland Panthers for 25 years and Oak Bay for 28 seasons.
With Paul Horne, who played and coached rugby at Western, Burgess co-coached the B.C. U-19 team and the Canadian Under-21 and Under-23 sides for 13 years, the latter teams winning four North American titles during that stretch.
"Don Burgess was the biggest influence on me as coach and a teacher," said Horne. "I feel so blessed to have had Don in my life as a mentor, colleague and a friend. He will always remain very much alive in my memory and of those who admired and respected him. None more than myself."
Several generations of Victoria island kickers were mentored by Burgess. They included Canadian World Cup captains Mark Wyatt and Gareth Rees, national teamers Bobby Ross and John Graf, and Canadian Football League kicking legend Dave Cutler.
In 1996, Burgess was presented B.C. Rugby's Jack Patterson Memorial Award for his 45 years of service to the sport, including 35 years as a high school rugby coach. He was also recognized for being Canada's first rugby coaching organizer.
Burgess invented the Burge (rubber-moulded) kicking tee, which is still used today. That brought him international recognition with hundreds of thousands sold worldwide.
"I'm a teacher first and foremost and I never got into this other thing (tee) to make money," Burgess told the Victoria B.C. Times Colonist in 1998. "I was a kicker and I wanted to make life easier for them in rugby. That's all."
Burgess died on Feb. 6, 2018, at the age of 85. He and wife Barbara, who was a field hockey player at Victoria High, were married for 60 years. Their daughter, Lisa, was a track athlete and is an operating-room nurse in Kamloops, B.C. They also had two sons, Doug and Mike, now a Saanich fire chief in Victoria.
Written by Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015. He is now in his third year as the school's Athletics Historian.
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