There’s a mystery hanging in my bedroom closet, wrought in shiny purple satin and white letters with gold trim.
It’s a Baltimore Ravens jersey, with the name “Burt” emblazoned on the back.
The Burt in question is my friend Burt Reynolds — yes, that one — who gave it to me at the saddest time in my life. The mystery is how Burt got it. And I really want to talk to Ray Lewis about it.
I am a Ravens fan … in that I am from Baltimore and root for them, as is pretty much required when you get your Maryland driver’s license. But my husband, Scott, was an actual giant fan. Which is why it meant so much when Burt, who had received the jersey from Ray himself, regifted it to me after Scott’s death. Burt didn’t make a production of it. He just saw my heart was broken and wanted to put a purple satin patch on it.
“Somebody described it as the silent philanthropy of Mr. Reynolds,” said Todd Vittum, a longtime friend of Burt’s and the former executive director of the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theatre. “You know how Elvis used to buy people Cadillacs? I think there was a little bit of show in it and it didn’t happen as often as people said it did. But there were all these stories of Mr. Reynolds doing things for people, quietly.”
Vittum says that Burt, who died in 2018, was “a student of people” who remembered the names of everyone, whether it was a movie star he’d worked with in the 1950s, or the guy who worked at the Georgia theater where they screened the 1976 film “Gator” when he ran into him 30 years later. Burt was a real one, as the kids say.
He also remembered me. When I was a columnist at the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Florida, Burt, who lived in nearby Jupiter, was the biggest star in town, settling into his role as grand elder statesman. He had an acting school and a museum filled with memorabilia from his storied career, from his Emmy to one of the canoes from “Deliverance” that he almost died tumbling down a waterfall in.
But as much as he enjoyed being a movie star, Burt loved football. A lot. He’d been a standout at Florida State University and was expected to play in the NFL. A car accident sent him on a different star-studded path, but he never forgot his love of the game, even portraying a few football players in movies like “The Longest Yard” (both versions) and “Semi-Tough.”
When my husband and I met Burt after one of his acting classes in 2010, he seemed delighted that Scott wanted to talk about football, not films, and knew Burt had been invited to train with the Baltimore Colts before his injury. Burt was so delighted, in fact, that he sent us a framed photo of our meeting, and even RSVP’d to our wedding before canceling because he was having bypass surgery. (Note to future wedding guests: This is one of the only acceptable reasons to cancel last minute. Wedding buffets are expensive.)
For the next five years, whenever I ran into him, Burt spoke of how cool it was to meet Scott. Although Burt and I got to know each other first as writer and subject, soon it was just as two people who liked sitting around hearing each other’s stories. (His were better.) We didn’t hang out randomly, but when I needed to talk to him, he always answered, and vice versa.
When my husband died unexpectedly in 2015, Burt sent a card to my home. The next time I saw him, he made a beeline to come hug and check on me.
About a year later, Burt released a book co-written with Jon Winokur called “But Enough About Me: A Memoir” which was, like Burt, blisteringly honest and funny. When he promoted it later at the Palm Beach Book Festival, he even thanked me from the stage. (I love my job.) After his Q&A, Burt was shuffled off to sign books, and Vittum gestured for me to follow him to a quiet corner. He handed me a bag, whose contents I immediately recognized as a Ravens jersey. I figured it was in honor of Scott and the football connection he and Burt shared. I thanked Vittum and started to put it back in the bag, but he stopped me.
“I think you said, ‘Oh, wow, that’s really cool’ and started to move on, but I said, ‘I think you need to take a look at it,’” Vittum remembered. When I saw the name “Burt” written on the back, I realized this hadn’t been something he just ordered. It had been a gift, and he gave it to me to make me smile. I burst into tears, but I eventually did start beaming. Someone had gone out of their way for me. And it happened to be the Bandit.
“We were going through the closet one day, looking for something, and found the jersey,” Vittum explained. “He said ‘Oh, hey, I know what I’m gonna do with this. Next time I see Leslie, I’ll give it to her.’ It was just because he valued your friendship and he knew it would make you feel better.”
What’s funny is that Vittum can’t remember exactly how Burt and Ray met. “He did so many things involving football players, and obviously Ray had a South Florida connection having been a star at the University of Miami,” he said. But somewhere along the way, Burt and Ray met, and Ray gave him a jersey. And now it’s mine.
The story of my jersey is a football story, but it’s also about why football means so much to people, apart from statistics and rules. Sports connect us to a place, to a fandom, to a tribe; it’s a visceral chord that ties us with the power to erase barriers and bond you with family, and strangers who become a different type of family altogether. I don’t have to understand the nuances of the game to get that.
I haven’t been able to get a hold of Ray Lewis, but if anyone out there knows the former Raven, tell him that a woman he has never met, whose husband was a fan, wants him to know he inadvertently made me happy, and that we are connected.
This shirt will also always connect me to Burt, and that special time in my life when I could say I was friends with a movie star. I wish Scott were here to watch the Super Bowl with me, even though he’d be bummed the Ravens aren’t in it. I don’t know which team he would have rooted for, but I do know he’d have to fight me to wear this jersey.