More Than a Memory

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on April 11, 2016

By Corbin Hosler

Editor's Note: This story discusses Burton's passing in plain words. Don't be afraid to reach out for help if needed: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.

Magic's biggest stage had come to his home state, and Hunter Burton felt bigger than Texas.

As the 24-year-old stared down future Hall of Fame pro Brian Kibler while they shuffled up for a deciding fifth game, he found himself just one win away from the finals of Pro Tour Austin. From the first time he saw a Magic card in seventh grade, the Dallas native had spent nearly every waking moment immersed in Magic, practicing at home or playing with friends when his mom, Dona, would drop him off at the Comic Box.

Hunter Burton had found his passion in life, and that passion was Magic. Every moment since then had led him to this point, standing as high as the game that had become entwined with his life could take him. In that moment, he was the personified dream of every player who has ever cracked that first booster pack: an inspiration to everyone watching.

Today, Burton is still inspiring.

Hunter Burton reached the pinnacle of Magic when he made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Austin in 2009.

On July 10, 2013, a Wednesday forever burned into the memory of those who knew him, Hunter phoned his mother, and the two shared a conversation Dona will never forget.

"The last words we exchanged, ten minutes before it happened, were 'I love you.' Thank god for that," Dona recounted. "None [of us] had any clue anything was really wrong until it happened."

Shortly after hanging up, Hunter Burton took his own life.

A self-assured woman who doesn't mince words, Dona Burton doesn't shy away from talking about the suicide. "No question is too hard" are her first words when speaking of Hunter's death. She doesn't want to forget, to lose sight of her past. To bury any talk of suicide as taboo would be to ignore a very real problem and potentially leave another family unprepared.

"I didn't know anything about suicide or understand, and I was a person who always attached a stigma to it—until it happened to our family," she said. "I have a completely different view of it now. I didn't know that there was a suicide somewhere every 40 seconds or how hard it is to see coming. It just breaks my heart."

Hunter's death shook his family to the core. Unbeknownst to his parents, Dona and Greg, and sister, Casey, those ripples went much further—something they didn't fully understand until Hunter's memorial service a few days later.

More than 100 Magic players were there to pay their respects and honor their fallen friend.

"Those were and are his true friends," Dona proudly explains when the subject comes up. "I can't fathom the amount of pain he had to have been in, but as strange as it sounds, I'm happy he's at peace. He had so many people who cared about him, and that's what we found out when they spoke to us at the memorial."

Dona and Greg had something for them in return. An idea, unique and specific.

A Magic tournament. The "biggest, baddest" one possible. Anyone welcome. Cash prizes. No splits.

Exactly what Hunter would have wanted.


And so the Hunter Burton Memorial Open was born.

To make the tournament a reality, the Burtons turned to Jeff Zandi, a longtime player and tournament organizer in Texas who also happened to be a mentor to Hunter. When Hunter spent a Saturday playing with friends, it was at the home of the man Dona affectionately refers to as the "Zan-man." When he tested for the Pro Tour, it was with the team known as the Texas Guildmages that Zandi headed. When he traveled long distances for events, it was with Zandi. Although Zandi was closer in age to Hunter's parents than himself, Hunter became fast friends with the man and spent his formative years often in his company. Zandi was one of his role models.

It was to the Zan-man that the Burtons entrusted full responsibility and tens of thousands of dollars to pull off a tournament their son would be proud of.

"I've run more than 100 PTQs and regional Prereleases, and I know how hard it is to create a standalone tournament to bring people in. I understood his parents wanted to do something, and I explained to them the risks and challenges it would bring," Zandi recalled of their first meeting in 2013. "Hunter was always very protective of his family when he played and largely kept them separate from his Magic career, so I didn't know how they would handle things. But they blew me away. They told me to stop talking to them about costs and start talking about what we could do to make this the best tournament possible and how we could give the proceeds to charity."

From left: Hunter Burton and Jeff Zandi. Burton's parents turned to the "Zan-man" to make the tournament a reality.

There were 157 players in the first Hunter Burton Memorial Open in 2014, which took place during Hunter's birthday month of March, and 169 players competed in 2015. The 2016 contest, hosted in the Arlington Convention Center two weeks ago, drew a record crowd of 245.

The tournament isn't about the money—it's about the memories. While the prize pool is generous and guaranteed, there's much more going on than simple attacks and blocks. Zandi and the Burtons pull out all the stops for this tournament, from commemorative dice and T-shirts, to a larger-than-life trophy, to a high-end watch that Hunter enjoyed and even a Magic-emblazoned Harley Davidson motorcycle. It's a dazzling display of items that all agree would have made Hunter proud.

Image courtesy of StarCityGames.com

While the prizes are fun, no one at the tournament forgets why they're there. The day begins with an announcement asking all attendees to stand if they had ever met Hunter, and then to stay standing if they ever played Magic with Hunter. As the tournament progresses and players settle into the customary battle for the Top 8, the air is thick with stories celebrating Hunter's life.

His death isn't forgotten, either. Proceeds from the tournament go to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Dona's ultimate goal for the tournament is that it help prevent other families from going through what the Burtons did.

"This event has a message beyond expected value and how much money you can win," Zandi explained. "And that's one of the things that has impressed me most about the Burtons. Humans don't want to talk about death or cancer or all the bad things that can happen in life, but there is something healthy about not being afraid to confront these very human, very normal things that affect us, and suicide is one of those major issues."

Dona Burton displays a painting of Hunter along with the Top 8 of the 2016 Hunter Burton Memorial Open.

That message comes through loud and clear.

"It was an honor to be able to compete in such a great event," said 2016 winner Zac Elsik. "This was my first year playing, and it's great to see a lot of people from around Texas show up to play. It really makes me appreciate all of the people I've met and how I've affected the Magic community by being a part of it."

The 2016 tournament was the biggest yet, and the Burtons have no intentions of slowing down.

"We want this to keep going as long as Magic is played," Dona said. "This is what Hunter loved to do; what better way is there to remember him? When Greg and I are gone, his sister will pick up where we left off. In three years, I can't believe how much it's grown, and we want to keep going until it's the biggest tournament there is. We want this tournament to donate a ton of money to suicide awareness—if we can keep this from happening to even one family, good god that would be awesome."

Image courtesy of StarCityGames.com

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