PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Jon Burnett was one of Pittsburgh’s favorite on-air personalities for 36 years.
At KDKA-TV, he co-hosted Evening Magazine, Pittsburgh Today, did the weather and co-hosted Pittsburgh Today Live for 11 years.
Burnett was always known for his adventurous and spontaneous spirit, willing to try anything like rappelling down a high rise, driving a jeep over boulders or racing on Big Wheels.
Burnett retired five years ago when he was 65, but many people don’t know he’s been facing some major health challenges since then, and he recently got a diagnosis. His neurologist says he has suspected CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a progressive brain disease caused by repetitive blows to the head. It’s suspected because the only way to definitively diagnose CTE is with an autopsy of the brain.
Before Burnett was on TV, he was on another stage: the football field. Burnett and his family wanted to share their story for many reasons. To help everyone better understand CTE, to help others who may face it, to remove the stigma around brain disease and to continue Burnett’s legacy of giving back to the Pittsburgh community.
Jon, his wife Debbie and his adult children Samantha and Eric sat down to talk with KDKA-TV’s Kristine Sorensen, who remains friends with Burnett after 20 years working together on the anchor desk and as PTL co-hosts.
Kristine says she has seen Burnett’s short-term memory worsen over the past several years, as well as his walk and his voice. She asked him about it and how retirement is going.
“I spent some of my time wishing that my voice wasn’t gone,” Burnett said. “It’s just this is the best I can do. This is a good day. My wife Debbie’s here. What is wrong with me? What’s wrong with my throat?”
Burnett asks his wife of 48 years to help him remember a lot of things. And through it all, he understands what’s happening.
“She’s my brains. Somebody would have to be,” he says.
Kristine asks Jon, “What does it feel like when you can’t remember something? Is it frustrating or what is it you go through?”
“It’s not as frustrating as it once was,” Burnett says, “because I’m growing accustomed to it. I guess it’s familiar.”
Jon’s short-term memory has been declining for 10 years, but other symptoms have gotten worse in the last two, including shuffling and reduced facial expression.
Debbie doesn’t leave him alone at all since he had a choking incident and is now on a soft-food diet. He’s not allowed to drive. He’s even had to be hospitalized a couple of times recently.
“There definitely have been challenges,” Debbie says. “It’s not what you think of retirement being.”
Jon’s daughter, Samantha, and son, Eric, are quick to focus on the positive; how their dad still loves time with family and playing with his five grandkids, who are ages 1 to 13.
Eric says, “He’s still there. He’s still having conversations with (his grandkids). He’s still running around, picking them up and having special sweet moments with them, and so that, in itself, is a blessing.”
Samantha says, “In his heart and in his core, he’s still dad. He loves his family. He loves people. He loves the outdoors. And none of that has changed.”
Jon adds, “I still got my kids and grandkids to chase around the house. I’m never, ever gonna give that up, even if I’m crawling on my hands and knees.
“Life wouldn’t be life without them. You’ll know someday,” he says to Kristine.
So after years of tests and doctor’s appointments, UPMC cognitive neurologist Dr. Joseph Malone ruled out all other possible causes and diagnosed Jon with suspected CTE.
Kristine asks Jon, “What did you think when the doctor told you you have suspected CTE, which comes from head injuries?”
Jon replied, “So first, I was kind of proud because it meant that I had been doing my job. Head first, chin up, face mask here, right into his head or his stomach or whatever. But whoever I was tackling or blocking, I was doing a number on most of them, but ultimately, I paid the price with the concussions that I had over the years, several of them.”
Jon played tackle football in Knoxville, Tennessee starting at the age of 10.
“I played both ways in high school. I was a fullback and a defensive end,” Jon said.
He was eventually recruited to play defensive end at the University of Tennessee. During his years on the field, Jon suffered two major concussions where he was knocked out cold: one during practice at the Gator Bowl where he was hit so hard, it split his helmet.
He estimates he used his head to hit another player 30-40 times a game, adding up to hundreds of hits over a decade, which is one of the primary reasons Jon’s neurologist suspects CTE.
“The main risk factor is something we call repetitive head injuries, or RHI, and this reflects multiple bonks to the head essentially,” said Dr. Malone.
Jon’s wife Debbie said, “I think we knew this in the back of our mind. I think he’s always said, ‘This is because of all the hits I took.'”
Like many kids, Football was Jon’s passion from a young age.
“I quickly discovered that I liked contact which, of course, is why my head is so screwed up today. And I liked the camaraderie that went with being on a team.
“Scoring touchdowns, intercepting passes, making a big tackle behind the line of scrimmage — all those things I did, and you know, all those things still motivate me today. But would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Would I try to protect my head a little bit more? I’d try, but I don’t know if it would have helped or not.”
There’s no way to tell exactly what head injuries caused Jon’s suspected CTE, one more reason researchers are trying to study people who played all kinds of contact sports.
Doctors still don’t know why some people with head injuries get CTE and others don’t, how to completely prevent it while still playing contact sports, or how to treat it.
Jon and his family want to share his story to help others and prevent more people from developing it, including by making sports safer.
His son, Eric said, “Even though a lot of what we are discussing can be looked at as negative and sad, I think that, again, what we’re doing right now, what you’re doing, dad, right now, is this is totally Jon Burnett — looking at the positive in every situation and thinking about the good that you can do for others.”
Jon said, “And I’ll never forget the things that I watched as these guys grew up into beautiful adults that you see here. I’m talking about my daughter, Samantha, my son, Eric, and my wife, Debbie, is my rock.”
It’s an emotional journey for everyone who loves Jon, but there’s hope that this star of the football field and television will also shine a light on the potential dangers of repeated head injuries and help everyone better understand their impact.
“If I can help anybody on this road, who is on this road or will be on this road in the years ahead, I feel better about being able to do that and being able to learn from my experiences,” he said.
Jon is part of research at the National Sports Brain Bank at the University of Pittsburgh, where scientists are working to learn about CTE. They need any athlete who played a sport with a higher risk of head injury to participate in their study so they can learn more about why some people get it, some don’t and what can be done to prevent and treat it.
The study involves an annual online questionnaire and agreeing to donate your brain upon death. The brain can be removed without any change to the rest of the body and can still allow for a traditional funeral and open casket.
If you are interested in signing up or learning more, go to the National Sports Brain Bank website here.