It was a Friday night in July 2006. The Romanians were in town working for the summer and living in an apartment at Front and Union. Early in the evening I met one of girls, who later came to be nicknamed The Romanian Sensation, at Sleep Out Louie’s for a drink before she left for work.
As we were chatting, she felt a light tug on her ponytail and I heard from behind, “Hey, Pauly!” I turned around to see my friend “Big Dave” Burnette. Dave played football for Arkansas and went on to play in the NFL for the Falcons and Cowboys. Dave was a true hulk of a man, standing somewhere between 6’7″ and 6’9″ with a bald head.
Dave had mistaken the Romanian Sensation for someone else who had similar long blond hair. When she turned around, he was shocked that he’d pulled the ponytail of someone he didn’t know. “Miss, I am SO sorry,” he told her several times. The Sensation didn’t react well. She turned her back to Big Dave and for the next 5 minutes acted like a turtle retreating into its shell. Dave tried to apologize to her several more times, but he sensed he was making her uncomfortable (through no fault of his own; she overreacted to what was an innocent mistake) and let her be.
Every time I saw Dave for the next several months afterward, he said to me, “Paul, I am so sorry I upset your Romanian friend.” I thought it was funny that a former pro football player would be so concerned about the feelings of a five-foot-tall girl who had long since gone back home. That’s how Big Dave was, though. A gentle giant.
The next year, the Ques Brothers were founded and Big Dave and I became BBQ teammates. When Dave found out I was an Arkansas fan, he and I had many lengthy discussions about Arkansas football and our chances of getting to a BCS bowl. The Hogs finally got there last fall, and Dave went to the Sugar Bowl to watch his nephew, quarterback Ryan Mallett.
Last Monday I jumped out of bed with enthusiasm, celebrating the start of vacation. My mood fell through the floor, however, when I logged on to Facebook and saw a bunch of “RIP Big Dave, we miss you” messages. Dave had played a game of basketball Monday morning. After the game, he suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was fifty years old.
Like me, Big Dave was a big poker fan, but we never got a chance to play together much. Dave, I hope I have many years before I meet up with you again, but when I do perhaps we can get a $1/$2 cash game going up there. I know you were watching over our BBQ team booth this weekend, and I’m sure you saw the outpouring of love for you from your many friends. Rest in peace, brother.