Suzanne Burke couldn’t help but snap the picture after peeking into her boys’ bedroom. Her son Tony, 16 and autistic, had been having trouble settling down. So big brother Johnny, a year older, climbed into Tony’s twin, threw an arm around his little buddy, and used the other arm to hold a calculus textbook.
This, Sue thought, is what you dream of when your kids are babies. That they will love each other — truly and deeply — as they age. But imagine if one child has the kind of autism that will require doting for a lifetime. Your hopes for an unshakable protector are even more emotionally loaded.
Sue could see it there in the room a few weeks back: Tony adores his brother, and his big brother will stop at nothing to love him back just as hard.
“Johnny was a lot of times with me when we were running around on appointments, if we had to go to CHOP,” their mom said, looking back to how her sons’ bond was forged during countless visits to specialists after Tony’s autism diagnosis at age 2. "He saw what happened. He saw the struggles that Tony went through. And he’s always been there for him.
“I always said when they were little, ‘I hope they remain this close,’ ” she added. “And they have so far.”
Days later, she’d see even more proof. This time, so would I.
On a rainy morning in Bensalem Township this past Sunday, Johnny stepped out of a soaking wet Holy Ghost Preparatory School parking lot and pushed a dripping rack of basketballs into a brightly lit gymnasium. He was running an hour-long basketball clinic for Tony and two dozen other special-needs kids from across the region. Each was buddied up with a Prep boy who’d volunteered to help the kids shoot, dribble — even lift some of the tiniest guys up high to help them drop a 10-inch ball into an 18-inch hoop.
Johnny had pitched the idea to top officials at the school and been told to run with it. This was a gift of compassion to his brother, yes, after a clinic elsewhere had shut down. But it became a gift to the Prep folks, too. A reminder that to be good in life you must be good to others. You must find empathy, feel empathy, and show empathy to be wholly human.
“This is pretty emotional,” the school’s tough-as-nails ice hockey coach, Gump Whiteside, said after nearly crushing my knuckles with a handshake.
I caught Gump on a sideline as Johnny and the other Prep boys ran drills with the visiting kids on the last of four 9 a.m. Sunday clinics at the Holt Center, a building that Gump manages.
I’d heard from a little bird that Gump had been a puddle of tears the first week. “I’m a crier,” Gump admitted. For this final session, he’d brought along his wife, Betsy, to see for herself why he’d been a bit of a mess.
“This is better than going to church,” Betsy told me. “I’m taking in total love and acceptance. This is worth getting up out of daylight savings for.”
Johnny Burke is an academic ace and a basketball fanatic. He’s taking four advanced placement and two honors classes this year when not winning practice sprints on the court.
He’s been playing hoops since he was about 4. Because he’s only 5-foot-6, he has had to be wily to stack up against meatier opponents. So he no longer turns to his reliable three-pointers. Instead, he just drives the lane when called off the bench, not unlike the signature hustle of Sixers Hall of Fame squirt Allen Iverson.
“He’s never had any fear,” said his dad, John Burke Jr., a Philadelphia police officer. “He wants to do something, and he just finds a way to get it done.” His dad and mom equally project calm and can-do optimism —qualities abundant in their home.
The family lives in the Holme Circle section of Northeast Philadelphia in a modest home packed with a big family: the two boys, their parents, and three of their cousins, 14-year-old Nicole, 12-year-old Kylie, and 16-year-old Michael, also known as Mick. All are thick as thieves with Tony. All were with Johnny, too, helping at the hoops clinics.
For his part, Tony doesn’t say much. That’s the autism at play. But any time Johnny is gone from home he asks for him. And he’s tickled when Johnny returns.
Johnny doesn’t say much, either. But that appears to be more about his low-key way of being. The kid is humble while extraordinarily composed and confident. He is the definition of Old Soul.
“Whether Tony has autism or not,” Johnny said, moments after blowing the whistle around his neck at center court, “I would be there for him.