FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Nearly five months ago to the day, Sam Berns passed away at the age of 17. On Thursday evening, his classmates and school administrators at Foxborough High ensured that his memory, and the impact he had on others, would never be forgotten by dedicating the school’s new turf field as the Sam Berns Community Field.
“Today is really, really special,” said Foxborough superintendent Debra Spinelli. “The fact that his name is up on the field represents everything that is good about our community and everything that was so good about him -- the coming together of people from all walks of life, the focus on our children, the willingness to do anything to make it happen -- and that’s the way Sam was. He didn’t see any barriers to any challenges.”
Megan Ennis, one of four students that presented the idea of naming the field in memory of Berns to the Foxborough School Committee, said, “I’m really honored because I knew Sam very well through band and music and everything, but I’m also a three-season [athlete] and I’m just so happy that everyone cares for him and that he’s really represented in all of the community at the high school.”
Berns had progeria – a rare genetic disorder that causes accelerated aging in children. However, the disease did not hold him back. He spoke publicly about his condition to help raise awareness for the Progeria Research Foundation, which his parents, Dr. Scott Berns and Dr. Leslie Gordon, founded.
His story gained national appeal through an HBO documentary, “Life According to Sam.”
But it was his smile and his sense of humor, not his disease that would be remembered most by his friends, of which there many in attendance on Thursday.
As the memories flowed from each of the speakers, it was obvious that the real tribute to Sam Berns was not that his name would forever be linked with a turf field, but the continued inspiration that his life, and his memory, will give to his classmates and the Foxborough community.
Spinelli said, “He always had a smile on his face. We never knew when he wasn’t feeling well or if he was tired…We never knew anything about how he really felt because he was always positive and always moving forward.”
Gus Herlihy, another of the students that spoke in front of the School Committee and Sam’s friend from the high school band, added, “He was very witty, very funny. You always wanted to hang out with him because he always made you laugh. He was just such a nice kid…everyone that wanted to meet him, he welcomed with open arms.”
Varun Nambikrishnan, Kyle Newcomb, Herlihy and Ennis were the four students that presented the idea to the school board. They were encouraged by the school administration, but also needed to research the bylaws about naming fields and create the presentation on their own.
“They’re smart; they’re caring; they have integrity and they want to give back,” said Spinelli. “This was the most special project that you could imagine.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft also spoke at the ceremony on Thursday. He recalled his first meeting with Berns at Gillette Stadium prior to the team’s trip to Atlanta last September. He smiled at the image of Berns speaking in front of all the Patriots players, who dwarfed him in stature, and running through the game plan for stopping Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“You should’ve seen him,” Kraft said, “cool as a cucumber.”
Kraft illustrated Berns’ wit in a story from that first encounter. “I told him that I would donate $1,000 to the Progeria Research Foundation for every year that he had been alive,” said Kraft. “He immediately told me, ‘Can you wait three weeks? Because then I’ll be 17.’”
After the ceremony, Kraft reflected, “If you saw his physical appearance, if you didn’t know him, you might feel sorry for him, but when you met him and saw how special he was … I fell in love with him the first time that I met him.”
At the end of his remarks, Kraft was noticeably emotional and struggled to finish.
When asked about it afterward, he explained, “I was going to say how I loved him and I just…There was something about his persona that drew you to him and you just respected him. I felt deep affection for him and I really miss him.”
The field project is not yet complete, according to Spinelli. There is still the need for concessions, bathrooms, lights, an entryway, and an eight-lane track to circle the field. An Eagle Scout, who does not attend Foxborough High, will be adding flowers and birdhouses on the outside of the field.
There’s one part of the project that does seem ready to move forward. During his remarks, School Committee member Jim Devellis surprised the crowd when he said that the Spinney family had donated $25,000 on Thursday morning to build a scoreboard, which will be up in time for the fall season.
Immediately following the ribbon cutting, the students in attendance threw beach balls into the air and the atmosphere turned into one of celebration. As Spinelli noted, this was what Sam would have wanted -- to move forward with a smile.
Ennis said, “He was always positive, always motivating people and he never let his situation get him down and that was really a motivation to everyone. He always was there to put a smile on everyone’s face.”
When asked about how he felt seeing the sign hanging between the goal posts with Berns’ name, Herlihy said, “It’s very fitting considering how much influence he’s had in all our lives – teaching us by leading by example…We all learned by how great of a person he was.”