Pennsylvania wrestling community mourns after two-time state medalist killed in car crash

ERIC KOPSNYDER
The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat (TNS)
Kai Burkett

The Chestnut Ridge School District and the Pennsylvania wrestling community are in mourning following the death late Friday night of Lions senior Kai Burkett.

The two-time state medalist was killed in a two-vehicle car crash.

State police in Bedford reported a fatal crash involving a 17-year-old on Cortland Road in Napier Township at 10:23 p.m. The teen’s Nissan Altima swerved to miss debris and, upon re-entering the roadway, traveled sideways into the path of a Ford F-150XLT driven by Fernando Rodriguez, 57, of New Paris. The teen was pronounced dead at the scene. Rodriguez and his passenger suffered minor injuries.

Burkett was the nephew of Chestnut Ridge head coach Josh Deputy, who gathered with his team on Saturday.

“This is gonna be tough, not just as his coach but as his uncle, who he saw almost every day,” Deputy said in a text. “I feel so bad for his brothers and teammates, but we will rise above. Kai was a kid of faith, and we are proud to know he is in heaven golfing this morning.”

Kai was one of seven children born to Aaron and Marci Burkett. The youngest is only a week old.

He asked his older brother Aaron, who was a standout wrestler for Chestnut Ridge, and younger brother Kobi, who will be a sophomore on the Lions team this season, to go golfing with him and Deputy on Saturday. So, hours after his death, they granted his final wish, playing a round with heavy hearts as they remembered him.

“His wrestling mentality kind of carried over everywhere,” his older brother recalled. “He was unbelievably competitive at everything. I could walk in and say ‘Man, I’m fast at picking up sticks,’ and his response would be ‘I’m faster.’ We said you better be on his team and winning or on the other team and losing, because otherwise there would be fights breaking out.

PA Power Wrestling ranked Burkett as the state’s No. 48 recruit in the class of 2021. He finished fifth in the PIAA tournament after his sophomore and junior seasons. He went 106-22 with 45 falls and won three District 5 individual titles. He also helped the Lions capture District 5 team titles and finish in the top four at the PIAA Class AA Dual Meet Tournament in each of his three seasons.

In addition to his individual accolades, Burkett had a starring role in one of the area’s most memorable dual meets of the past decade. The heavily favored Lions trailed Westmont Hilltop 33-28 when he stepped onto the mat as Chestnut Ridge’s final hope on Jan. 21. Needing a fall to lift his team, the 113-pounder delivered, recording a pin in less than a minute for a 34-33 victory that thrilled the large home crowd.

“I stood up and everyone was going crazy,” Kai Burkett said that night. “It was something I’ve never experienced before.”

Burkett's large family that has been an important part of Chestnut Ridge’s development into a state wrestling power. His older brother was a three-time state medalist for the Lions and later wrestled at Lehigh, and Kai’s accomplishments had put him in a position to potentially follow in Aaron’s footsteps, if he so chose that path. Kai's dream, Aaron recalled, was to own a deer farm, and he loved the outdoors.

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

The Burkett family shares a strong sense of faith, and Aaron said that helps him as he mourns the loss of his best friend.

“Just knowing that someday I’ll get to see him again,” he said, trailing off. “He’s in a better place right now. We’re mourning but he’s celebrating right now. That helps us all get through this. He’s not sad. He’s not in any pain. He wouldn’t want us to sit around and cry for years on end over it.”

Social media tributes poured in from the wrestling community.

Justin McCoy, who was a teammate of Burkett’s at Chestnut Ridge and now wrestles for the University of Virginia, tweeted, “My heart hurts for the Burkett family. 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.”

Aaron Burkett was overwhelmed by the support that his family has received, not just locally but from around the state.

“I’ve had multiple kids that he’s practiced with, wrestled against in big-time matches, wrestlers that were my age – everybody’s just kind of messaging me and telling me what kind of impact he had on their lives,” he said. “A big thank you to everyone in the wrestling community.”