Ashley Unruh will always remember that smirk.
An extrovert by nature, Unruh’s personality was the polar opposite of her brother Wyatt Burch, who family members had affectionately nicknamed “Quiet Wyatt.”
So when Unruh was holding court at family gatherings, Wyatt tended to sit in another part of the room respectfully listening. If stories would go too long, Unruh says her brother had a subtle, yet unmistakable way of informing her that it might be time to wrap it up.
“He had that smirk,” she said. “That smirk is ‘Oh, my annoying big sister, here she goes again with one of her ridiculous stories.’ I’d poke fun at him about him being quiet and his response would be those smirks.”
Those smirks had become a much more frequent sight in recent months and Unruh, who is 15 years older than Wyatt, welcomed them happily.
A three-sport athlete who just wrapped up his sophomore year at North High, Wyatt needed a place to workout as COVID-19 forced the school to close its weight room. His sister, who had “a very basic weight bench” at her home, offered an alternate spot with one caveat.
“I told him payment was to spend 30 minutes of quality time with me,” she said. “And the thing is, every day he stayed for like five hours because he just wanted to hang out and be here.”
As she told the story, laughs quickly gave way to sobs, as the siblings’ time together was cut tragically short earlier this week.
While on a hike at Cucamonga Peak in San Bernardino County last Sunday, Wyatt suffered a severe bout of heat stroke and had to be rushed to the hospital. The following morning, just three days after turning 17, he passed away, his untimely death shattering a community of friends, family, teammates and coaches.
Wyatt’s mother, Shawn Burch, a guiding force who helped him overcome the death of his father Kevin when Wyatt was 6, lost who she called “my very best friend.”
His brother Kevin Jr. lost a musical partner. Big country music fans, the pair would often jam together, Kevin on guitar, Wyatt on bass.
And the community lost a multitalented, emerging athlete, who as just a sophomore earned key roles on the Stars’ football and wrestling teams, all while maintaining a 3.5 grade point average.
“You never, ever think that something like this would happen to your family, especially to someone who’s just so awesome and had so many big dreams and was doing all of the right things,” Unruh said.
A surprise outlet
Entering high school, Shawn Burch assumed sports would be out of the question for her son. Having previously gone out for football at age 11, Wyatt struggled with the physical aspects of the sport and promptly quit.
But as Wyatt, who was listed at 6-foot-3, 270 pounds last year, continued to grow, his mother knew coaches would come knocking. She told her son to be on the lookout as the pair separated at an orientation event prior to the start of his freshman year.
Before a coach could even make a pitch, Wyatt had already been sold by a soon-to-be teammate.
“I told him ‘don’t let one of those coaches get ahold of you because they’re going to want you,” Shawn said. “Next thing I know, he says ‘Mom, I’m going out for football.’ A coach didn’t get him, a player got him.”
The struggles that caused him to walk away at age 11 quickly became a thing of the past. Falling in love with the sport, Wyatt became a key contributor on the offensive and defensive lines for the freshman/sophomore team before becoming a two-way varsity starter as a sophomore in 2019.
Wyatt, who also threw shot put on the Stars’ track and field team, was told by a coach that going out for wrestling could create new opportunities on the football field. And, as was the case on the gridiron, Wyatt soon found a new love, and great success, in the wrestling room.
In 2020, Burch was instrumental in helping the Stars capture a Division-3 Central Section title, qualifying for Master’s with a fourth-place finish in the heavyweight division.
After nearly qualifying for the state tournament, big things were expected from him on the mat, both in high school and beyond.
“He had the potential and he was athletic enough that he could go (to a Division-I college),” North wrestling coach Brady Garner said. “He was right up there and he could hang with the best.”
In wake of Wyatt’s passing, Garner and North football coach Richie Bolin started a GoFundMe account to help the family pay medical and funeral expenses, and early results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Initially hoping to raise $5,000, that goal was achieved less than 24 hours after the page went live Monday. After reaching the second donation goal of $10,000 Wednesday night, the total was boosted to $15,000 on Thursday morning.
“It’s been incredible seeing people’s responses,” Bolin said. “Even with the tough times we’re in right now... people have been able to find a way to help the family.”
‘The most unimaginable pain’
Two days after his birthday, Wyatt was in the mood for adventure.
Having never hiked before, he and a friend set off Sunday to Cucamonga Peak, a 12-mile trek with peak elevation 8,862 feet located in San Bernardino County.
A difficult trek with an estimated seven-hour completion time, Wyatt began struggling late in the hike, as rising temperatures brought about severe heat stroke that caused his fever to spike to 107 degrees.
Badly dehydrated, he was rushed to a nearby hospital. His mother, sister, brother and aunt frantically drove nearly three hours to Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, spending the bulk of the trip nervously praying together.
Sadly, when they arrived, reality quickly set in.
“The second we got there, we knew he wasn’t going to make it,” Kevin said.
For roughly six hours Monday morning, Unruh says family members were “jumping out of our skin” as they sat crammed into a solitary waiting room, clinging to whatever hope they had that Wyatt may pull through.
At one point, the family was told Shawn would be allowed in Wyatt’s room under two circumstances: If he began to code or if he was making a recovery. After making this announcement, a staffer soon whisked Shawn away without giving a prognosis, leaving panicked family members unsure if the news was good or bad.
A half-hour later, they got their answer. Around 10 a.m., Wyatt’s family was informed he couldn’t be revived. As each family member placed their hands on his body, Wyatt passed away.
“It is the most traumatic experience I’ve ever gone through,” Unruh said. “It was just the most unimaginable pain that you could ever experience.”
‘He was just the greatest human’
Returning to the family home has proven difficult for Shawn, who’s been staying with a friend.
Since Sunday, she’s been inside her house just once. Returning to retrieve an item Tuesday, the trip only proved to intensify her grief.
“I ended up in Wyatt’s room and they had to come get me out of there,” she said.
Even if he wasn’t the most talkative person they knew, those in Wyatt’s life took great pleasure in seeing the different ways he expressed himself.
Unruh loved watching his athletic exploits, saying it was a thrill seeing him thrive in such a short period of time.
Kevin saw his creative side when playing music, but also witnessed his brother’s competitive streak whenever they’d go fishing or play video games together.
Garner and Bolin each praised his tireless dedication to get better, as he would often embark on grueling tasks with an excited look on his face.
“He was just a very joyful kid,” Bolin said. “You could ask him to do anything and he’d do it with a smile, a chuckle.”
Shawn says such a multitude of memories paint a full picture of who her son was, and she isn’t interested in narrowing her list of favorites down.
“My favorite memory is everything,” she said. “He was just the greatest human.”