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No excuses, no allowances for Boca Ciega second baseman

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Mon. April 12, 2010 | Bryan Burns

GULFPORT — The battered prosthetic foot barely resembles the one Mary Burkett left Shriners Childrens Hospital in Tampa with six months ago.

The heavy-duty grade plastic is pockmarked with dents.

The shape is disfigured.

Toes are missing, broken off from the repeated pounding.

 “They’re just ripped apart,” said Cheryl Burkett, Mary’s mother. “When Mary gives (the doctors) the prosthetic to fix, they can’t believe what it looks like.”

Once, when the doctors cut the prosthetic open, sand poured out. “I like playing sports a lot,” Burkett grins.

“I don’t think you can do that, Mary.”

That phrase feels foreign to Burkett, a starting second baseman on the Boca Ciega High School softball team.

Burkett was born without her right foot. Doctors have never been able to fully explain why. It could have become entangled around the umbilical cord. There are bumps that show where her toes started to grow, but otherwise her right leg ends at her ankle.

“It’s not like it was severed,” said Burkett, a senior. “It just never grew.”

Growing up, Burkett’s father, Jake, would watch her along with older brother Josh and younger sister Lauren during the day before heading off to night classes at USF.

Visiting the park was a daily ritual. The siblings would go head to head, no matter the sport. Josh, two years older, never let up on his sister. Mary fought right back, at the encouragement of their father.

“My dad treated me like a boy,” she said. “I was the same as my brother.”

Burkett continued pursuing athletics. She made the Boca Ciega volleyball and soccer teams as a freshman. This year, she reached double figures for goals from her left forward position in soccer.

“I’m probably the best at soccer,” she admits.

She would play basketball for the Pirates but it interferes with soccer season. She plays flag football in a rec league near her home. She wakeboards.

Gymnastics was Burkett’s main sport until doctors told her the constant pounding on the small surface area of her right leg could give her knee and hip problems down the road.

“My parents put me in everything,” Burkett said. “…They’re like, ‘Let’s see what she can do,’ and I was able to do all of it.”

“Because (Jake) was home with the children, he made all the difference,” Cheryl added. “He made Mary who she is today.”

In preseason practice, Boca Ciega softball coach Michelle Beckert encouraged Burkett to play the year without her prosthetic foot, which would often leave Burkett’s leg raw and blistered. Her batting was compromised because the prosthetic wouldn’t turn with the rest of her body, reducing her power.

Initially, Burkett balked. Taking the field without the foot would leave her vulnerable. She already heard whispers, felt the stares. What would people say now?

“I don’t think you can do that, Mary.”

“It was hard for me at first,” Burkett said. “I sat off to the side and thought about it for 10 minutes and was like, ‘I can do it.’ And I just took it off and started playing.” (She wears a black ankle brace in place of a cleat, but it’s just a cover. It doesn’t offer support of protection.)

Since then, her confidence has soared.

“I’m really proud of the courage she showed to take it off and come out on the field and face her insecurities about her foot,” Beckert said.

And she has become even more effective as a player. Beckert says she is the team’s second-fastest runner. Her focus in the field is unwavering.

“Defensively, she was as good as what I’ve seen at second base in the county,” East Lake coach Mike Estes said. “She made every play that went to her. …She’s impressive.”

Burkett will join her brother next year at Florida State, where she plans to pursue a career in the medical field, a path fostered by the medical magnet program at Boca Ciega.

“I like dissecting things,” she said. “I want to try something in the medical field, maybe medical examination. Something where I get to cut things up.”

Burkett will never let her absent foot dictate her path.

“I pushed myself as hard as I can to be able to keep up with everyone else and have no one know (about the foot),” Burkett said. “… I don’t ever give myself excuses.”

“I don’t think you can do that, Mary.”

That phrase isn’t even in Mary Burkett’s vocabulary.

Bryan Burns can be reached at bburns@sptimes.com

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