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Ridge mourns loss of star wrestler

Senior Burkett killed in Friday auto accident

Kai Burkett was a quiet, family-loving star on the state power Chestnut Ridge High School wrestling team.

He had just begun his senior year at Ridge and was looking forward to — barring a cancellation or interruption as a result of COVID-19 — adding to his illustrious wrestling resume that included three District 5 titles, two Southwest Regional second-place finishes and two state fifth-place medals.

That’s why a shocked Chestnut Ridge community is in mourning after learning of Burkett’s death following an automobile accident late Friday night.

According to state police in Bedford, Burkett swerved to avoid debris on Cortland Road in Napier Township before losing control of his car and hitting a pickup truck driven by Fernando Rodriguez of New Paris going in the opposite direction. Burkett was pronounced dead at the scene. Rodriguez and his passenger had minor injuries.

Burkett was 17 years old.

Earlier in the evening, Burkett, one of the seven children of Aaron and Marci Burkett, attended a family birthday party. Ridge wrestling coach and Burkett’s uncle, Josh Deputy, was at the party with his wife Chanda and sons Dominic, Cooper and Coen.

“We just had a family gathering for his little brother’s birthday,” Deputy said on Saturday as he fought his emotions. “Fortunately, we all got to spend the evening with him. He was asking for me and his brothers Aaron and Kobi to go golfing with him in the morning.”

Later that night, Deputy got the call about Burkett’s death.

“There were no words,” Deputy said. “My wife and I sat up most of the night just speechless.”

Deputy met with the emotional wrestling team on Saturday to talk about Burkett’s death.

“It’s something that you never expect to have to deal with as a coach and as his uncle as well,” Deputy said. “I told the boys ‘We’ll rise above this,’ and they could be at peace like I am. Kai was a young man of faith. He’s with The Lord right now, not in the pain we’re all in, but enjoying himself and having fun up in Heaven.”

Deputy said the team hasn’t talked about any tribute, or a way to honor Burkett, yet for the wrestling season.

“The team is hurting really bad,” Deputy said, “and wrestling is kind of the farthest from all of the kids’ minds. I’m grateful as a coach that I have a group of young men that look at things in a perspective. It’s not all about wrestling. It’s about each other. Our program has been about that for a long time.”

Burkett’s funeral is set for 11 a.m. on Friday at Faith Brethren Bible Church in New Paris. The viewings at the church are Thursday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Burkett was a two-time Mirror first-team all-star who went 106-22 in his career, posted a 40-7 record as a junior and finished fifth at 113 after taking fifth at 106 as a sophomore. He would have been a safe bet to capture his third state medal, matching his older brother and 2016 Ridge graduate Aaron.

“Rest easy bro, I’ll see you again on the better side,” Aaron tweeted.

Aaron later tweeted “The kid had so much ambition and so many plans but God said it’s time to go and nobody knows better than God.”

Kai was also on the Ridge golf team and had his own YouTube channel called Eternity Outdoors.

Twitter was abuzz with the news of Burkett’s sudden passing.

“My heart hurts for the Burkett family,” Ridge and Mirror all-time wins leader Justin McCoy tweeted. “I’m grateful for the time I was able to spend with Kai as a teammate. Not a single bad thing you could say about this kid. Prayers to the Burkett family, you will be missed. Rest easy Kai.”

“I can’t express the amount of pain I feel,” Ridge 2020 grad and two-time state placer Nathan Holderbaum tweeted. “Fly high Kai, love you brother.”

“RIP Kai. A great wrestler and an even better person,” Glendale two-time state champion Brock McMillen tweeted. “My thoughts and prayers are with the Burkett family.”

Deputy said Burkett’s competitive nature and will to win made him such a great wrestler. It was that competitive nature that was on display last season when, with the Lions losing by five points to Westmont Hilltop going into the last bout, Burkett won by fall to give Ridge a 34-33 win.

“One of my fondest memories of Kai was that Westmont match,” Deputy said. “I spent lots of time with him, and I knew what he was capable of. Right before that match, I gave him a kiss on the forehead and told him I loved him and there’s no one I’d want more in this position.

“He was a quiet kid, but he was also one of the most competitive people you’d ever meet. My wife would always say Kai should have been my kid because we had all of the same interests and neither of us liked to lose in anything.

“He lived right by me. I saw him every day. He was more than just my nephew. He was almost like another one of my sons. His family was important to him. To me, that speaks a lot about a teenage boy, where his family was always first to him.”

Despite his success, Burkett wasn’t a wrestler who would boast or bring attention to himself.

“Kai wasn’t the look-at-me-type of guy,” Deputy said. “What Kai would want would be for us to be thankful for one another and to treat people the way we all should. I asked the kids the best tribute (for Burkett) was to be the leaders of the school and show everybody there’s enough love for everybody.

“We’ll honor him by rising above all the hate in the world and we can give as much love to anyone as anybody.”

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