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Eli Burgett, 13, a student at Community Christian School, smiles during an interview Wednesday in Willmar. Burgett, a die-hard Vikings fan, received a signed photo from running back Adrian Peterson while he was recovering from hip surgery. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

'Biggest fan' in Vikings land receives gift from beloved team while recovering from surgery

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News Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/1/1130/20120116011112ccsstudenteli05.jpg?itok=-W1x6Uir
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'Biggest fan' in Vikings land receives gift from beloved team while recovering from surgery
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Eli Burgett has always been there for his classmates at Community Christian School in Willmar. He's supportive and always upbeat, even when his beloved Minnesota Vikings are having a bad year. So when Eli, 13, was laid up after hip surgery last fall, his fellow seventh-graders got to work.

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Lizzy Gardner, 12, wrote to the Vikings, explaining that Eli is "the biggest Viking fan I've ever met." She asked if the team could donate something for him to add to the surprise his friends were cooking up.

She thought there was maybe a 50-50 chance she'd get a response, Lizzy said this week. But about two weeks later, an autographed picture of running back Adrian Peterson arrived in the mail. She hadn't asked for it specifically, but his friends received an autographed photo of Eli's favorite Viking.

Eli has faced physical challenges his entire life. He was born without a hip socket on his right side, a condition called hip dysplasia. A series of surgeries have adjusted the angle at the top of his femur and built a "shelf" to serve as his hip socket.

Doctors hope that Eli is near the end of his major surgeries. He still has a difference in the length of his legs, and the next step will be a leg-lengthening procedure. "That should be it," said his dad, Mike Burgett.

After the most recent surgery, to reconstruct a shelf built when he was younger, he was in a body cast and lying down for 5 weeks, said his mom, Sara Burgett.

Eli was home in bed most of that time, but the family used a special wheelchair to get him out once in a while. While he was in bed, he did homework, read and participated in another favorite activity -- "He's mastered several video games," his dad said.

One of Eli's biggest outings was to school, where his classmates and teachers were ready and waiting. "Because I had surgery, they were thinking of me," Eli said.

His locker was decorated with Vikings memorabilia. During morning chapel, they presented him with a CCS Eagles basketball jersey that has his name and the number 1 on the back. The Peterson photo was matted and framed, with his classmates' signatures on the mat.

"They were thinking of a way to give Eli some encouragement," said Duane Starkenburg, Eli's math teacher. Another teacher in on the effort was Mike Elmhorst, the basketball coach and history teacher.

Elmhorst, the kids call him Mr. E, helped Lizzy work on the letter to the Vikings, even though he's a Green Bay Packers fan. Elmhorst and Eli often tease each other about their favorite teams.

"It's overwhelming, the kindness and love shown to Eli," his mom said. "I think Eli has a very sensitive spirit that makes him compassionate with others."

His classmates said their gifts were a way of returning a large number of favors. "He's very kind and very encouraging," said Joshua Starr, 12.

For his part, Eli is modest about what he does. "I try and give them encouragement so they can be happy for the rest of the day," he said.

"The students are there for Eli, but Eli is there for other students," Starkenburg said.

Until this week, Eli had not read the letter Lizzy wrote and sent to the Vikings. He bent his head to read the letter carefully, then looked up at his friends and said, "It's awesome. ... It makes me feel great."

Principal Carl McCrory called Eli a blessing to the school. He is always smiling and "he's such an inspiration," he said.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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