MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Care-free, loving, sweet and bubbly — those are just a few ways those who knew Rylee Burnette would describe her.
Rylee wasn’t your typical high school senior. She was able to hold a conversation with just about anyone, regardless of age, and didn’t think twice about it.
“Rylee had a heart of gold for young and old,” Deanna Burnette, Rylee’s mom, said. “Rylee was so wise beyond her years. She was so knowledgeable about sports, history, life. She had conversations with adults as if she knew them for years. She would go out of her way on and off the field to make sure anyone felt comfortable. Something as simple as saying hi, or starting a conversation with someone to get them involved.
“Rylee always put others before herself, making sure everyone was taken care of. This is the kind of person my girl was.”
On Oct. 10, Rylee passed away, taking her own life. She was 17 and daughter of Tim Burnette and Deanna Burnette.
A student at Clay-Battelle, her death sent shock waves through the community, but she left behind a legacy that many won’t soon forget.
Rylee’s love of sports is something she was most known for as a star for the Cee-Bees girls’ basketball team and softball team, which she helped lead to the school’s first state tournament appearance last May.
She was named first team all-state as a do-it-all utility player, playing wherever she had to — outfield, infield and catcher — to help the team win.
“Ry was everything you wanted out of a teammate,” former Cee-Bee Caitlyn Kassay said. “She pushed you to be the best you could be every time you took the field and called you out if you weren’t giving 100%. Ry was the kind of teammate that would do whatever it took for the team — she sacrificed her body for a play, she would pick up a bucket if it needed done and she would be there to pick you up when you needed it.”
From a young age, Rylee went to her older sister, Kali’s, gymnastics lessons and cheerleading practices, as well as to big brother, Tanner’s, basketball and hockey games. The relationship Rylee had with Tanner, who starred himself at C-B in football, basketball and baseball, helped grow Rylee’s love for sports and helped shape the athlete she became.
“Ever since she was a baby, she was going to her brother’s hockey games, which she absolutely loved,” Deanna said. “She always expressed wanting to play hockey again. She would be at his basketball games shooting, even though the ball wouldn’t go anywhere near the rim at the time. Rylee’s admiration for her brother and his sporting abilities outweighed all others. Basketball was her first love, just like her brother’s. Then, of course, softball, and she would try anything else and did. Such as hockey, track, cross-country and volleyball. I think anyone would say Ry was outgoing and an extremely talented athlete. Needless to say, I am one proud momma.”
Along the way, Rylee collected between 80-100 pairs of shoes — slides, her basketball shoes and boots.
“There’s not a time she didn’t love her shoes,” Deanna said.
Rylee’s basketball shoes got a lot of work over the years and she was set to begin her final high school hoops season this year. A 5-foot-2 guard, Burnette was known for her ability to shoot and get the ball where it needed to go.
“Rylee was an athlete for sure,” coach David Joyce said. “She was a team leader and captain, and was blessed with great talent. She was on her way to 1,000 points by midseason. She was one of those guards who was a second coach on the floor because the game just made sense to her.”
Losing a teammate is incredibly hard, but the Cee-Bees have started the season at 2-3, including a season-opening win against Hundred.
“We have moved forward as best we can,” Joyce said. “At the same time, we are frequently reminded that we have lost a great friend and teammate. The girls have shown great strength and resilience and have carried themselves in a way to honor Rylee, her family and the Clay-Battelle community.”
Competition aside, schools have reached out to show support of Rylee and her family the best they can. Moorefield, Paden City, Hundred, Grafton, Tygarts Valley, Camden, University, South Harrison, Trinity, Phillip Barber, Bridgeport, Fairmont State, Notre Dame and East Fairmont high schools, and Waynesburg University, have all done something to show recognition.
Team pictures in support, warm up shirts, No. 14 jerseys draped over an empty seat on the bench and moments of silence are a few things teams have done.
“It’s meant the world to us — keeping Rylee’s legacy alive, which is not only her being an amazing athlete but a person with a heart of gold,” Deanna said. “A person who was loved by so many and who would do anything for anyone. A person who touched so many lives. So many in fact that she and we didn’t even realize. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of them.”
Even though, on the surface, Rylee was a fun-loving and caring person, she was battling depression and it eventually reached its breaking point. In a letter addressed to Deanna, Rylee said how much she was struggling mentally.
In tragedy, Deanna and Tim want to spread depression awareness and help with suicide prevention.
“I would like to tell people to please not be afraid of speaking up,” Deanna said. “And to the people who are listening to please not judge and assume a person is complaining or lazy or being overly dramatic. Again, taking the words from Rylee, ‘This thing called depression is truly a horrible thing .’
“I would ask that they look at Rylee’s life. She was always smiling, talking to people, looking out for people, she had everything going for her. She got a job she had wanted, basketball was about to start, she had all the senior events written in her school agenda — breaks, last day for seniors, graduation day. She planned to go onto college to be an athletic trainer, she decided she’d like to play softball in college. I say these things to make people aware depression and someone with suicidal thoughts isn’t always what you think.”
Tim echoed the same, believe there is always someone who is willing to listen.
“We can’t say it enough — if you have a physical problem, we go to the doctor,” he said. “We need to teach kids it’s alright to ask for mental help. She was a strong-willed young lady who didn’t want to ask for help. If someone is hurting, talk to someone.”
The memories and the good times are always something Rylee’s family and friends will have, and the impact she made on others will not be forgotten.
“Her dad and I have received many messages expressing how Ry made their day,” Deanna said. “One expressed how she didn’t know her but Rylee walked over to her and started shooting basketball with her because she was alone. So Ry went over, started a conversation and at the end of the conversation, told her if she ever needed anything to let Ry know.
“My letter shows this as well. Telling me, ‘Go do what you want, don’t let anyone hold you back. Life is too short.’ She worries about me even in the last minutes. And that is her.”
Mental Health access
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-8255
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline — 1-800-662-4357
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline — 1-877-726-4727
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) — 1-800-950-6264
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) — 1-866-615-6464
Mental Health America Hotline — Text MHA to 741741
Crisis Text Line — Text CONNECT to 741741
Crisis Text Line — Text REASON to 741741
Self-Harm Hotline — 1-800-366-8288
West Virginia Suicide Prevention Hotline — 1-800-784-2433
West Virginia Suicide Prevention Talk line — 1-800-273-8255
WVU’s HelpWELL Suicide Prevention and Awareness — Health & Education Building, 390 Birch St., Morgantown
Valley HealthCare System — 1-800-232-0020