Thursday, December 29, 2011
Updated: December 30, 4:29 PM ET
Tragedy on court inspires community
By Christopher Parish
There was something about Wes Leonard that made him special. You could see it in his eyes.
You could see it when he was on the court. He had a look that exuded poise and confidence. His eyes showed his passion whether he was scowling or smiling.
You can see that look in his eyes in the photo, now infamous, of his celebration after his basket capped a perfect regular season for Fennville (Mich.). His teammate, Adam Siegel, lifts him into the air, and Wes clutches the back of Siegel's jersey and smiles for the final time.
Wes always seemed so focused on the moment. It's as if nothing was ever wasted with him. As if he knew his time was short, and he spent his whole life taking it all in before it was taken away.
"He was about rising to the occasion," says Fennville boys' basketball coach Ryan Klingler. "He wasn't ever satisfied until the buzzer sounded, and he was going to do everything in his power to win. Every coach dreams of having a player like that."
It's been 10 months, and Klingler's voice still sounds hollow. Maybe it's the endless interviews. Maybe it's that his season has started up again, and it's just another reminder that Wes is gone. Maybe it's the constant reminders that he isn't coming back.
His star player died on the court just moments after Siegel lifted his teammate into the air. Fennville was 20-0 thanks to the overtime win over Bridgman, and Wes was the hero. His layup with less than 30 seconds left propelled the Blackhawks to the win.
Elation among the approximately 1,400 in attendance turned to shock when Leonard collapsed on the court after celebrating with his teammates. Paramedics couldn't revive him. Leonard was pronounced dead at the hospital. It was cardiac arrest -- the result of an enlarged heart.
Fennville players had been thinking about how far they could go in the playoffs. Now they were wondering how they'd go on without Wes.
"Basketball was the furthest thing from most of our minds," Klingler says. "When we did talk, it was remembering the funny stories and good memories."
But there were games to be played. Klingler's team thought about canceling its season. Few would have blamed the group. It hurt just to think about it.
"I think every kid had a little trepidation in his mind," Klingler says. "Do we really do this? Is it right to keep playing?"
But after consulting with the Leonard family, the team decided to play on.
It's what Wes would have wanted.
The team's first game after Wes' death was moved to a neutral site with extra capacity. The opponent, Lawrence, was slated to host but gave up home-court advantage in a show of good sportsmanship. Fennville fans bought more than 2,000 tickets for the game in less than an hour. The town, 185 miles west of Detroit, has a population of only 1,400.
When Fennville took the court for the ceremonial opening tip, just four players stood at the ready. The message was clear -- there was no replacing Wes. There was no need. He was with them in spirit.
Fennville got off to an understandably slow start. But led by Siegel's 22 points, the Blackhawks won 65-54.
"We didn't talk about game planning for that game," Klingler says. "I just wanted to make sure that our guys were OK, that they were ready to put on the jerseys again and step on out onto that floor. I just wanted them to get through that moment."
One day later, players attended their teammate's funeral.
The rest of the games in Fennville's amazing run were a touching story to the rest of us. For Fennville's players and coaches, it was a blur.
"When you look back now, you never get caught up in all that," Klingler says. "I look back now, and I don't remember much. I'm not sure I'll ever want to go back and look through it all.
"When you talk to people about it, you're amazed at how it all exploded, how the story took on new life. That's a credit to what Wes was always going to be about. He was always able to grab the headlines."
The season continued for 11 days after Wes passed away. Wins over Bangor and Covert helped the Blackhawks advance to the Michigan Class C regional semifinal before falling to eventual state champ Schoolcraft. The dream run was over. The players were exhausted and emotionally drained. Klingler was sick -- a combination of stress, emotion and lack of sleep.
Baseball season was just beginning for many of the players whose basketball season had finally concluded. The players were given a week off to relax and clear their heads. Many of them took just a few days.
"We're pretty blessed as a program," Klingler says. "We have a nice following. But it was the outpouring from the community and then from the people outside our area, the thoughts and the prayers, the people who wrote letters from all over the United States. That was pretty amazing."
Through Wes' death comes an inspiration to help others. It's in a community that has committed itself to speaking about Wes as well as the devices that could have saved his life that day -- automated external defibrillators. The Wes Leonard Heart Team, a group committed to furthering the cause, has pushed for legislation to mandate that all schools have AEDs. The group has raised money for schools that can't afford them.
The memory of Wes lives on. It lived during a season opener at Fennville this month. It was the first game on the home floor since his death. The memory lives in his brother, Mitchell, who has made the varsity team as a freshman. He comes off the bench for the Blackhawks and is getting better every game.
"He's a different kid than his brother was," Klingler says. "He's going to be his own type of player. He's moving up from eighth grade to the varsity game, and he's adjusting well. He's a special kid."
Mitchell's going to be one heck of a player. You can see it in his eyes.