On Monday I drove a couple hours to see a high school basketball game in Vicksburg, Michigan – about 20 minutes south of Kalamazoo. The Class C regional semi-final pitted Schoolcraft against Fennville. Both schools were undefeated – but that wasn’t why I was going.
Two weeks ago Fennville lost its star center, Wes Leonard, just minutes after the last regular season contest. Leonard had made the game winning shot, and the Fennville fans rushed the court and hoisted their hero onto their shoulders.
Then, just seconds later, the truly unthinkable happened: Wes Leonard’s enlarged heart gave out, and he collapsed, right on the court. Before midnight, the town pastor emerged from the hospital to tell the crowd Wes Leonard had died.
The tragedy became national news, and the outpouring of support for the family and Fennville arrived from around the nation, and the world. But, naturally, it was hardest for those who knew him best.
No matter what you were like in high school, you’d want Wes Leonard to be your friend. And he would be.
Wes often asked his teachers about their weekends, partly to avoid work but also because he was simply curious about people -- all people. Leonard would invite the special education students to join him for lunch, and soon the other jocks were doing it, too.
When English teacher Susan McEntyre read her students’ journals last semester, “Just about all the kids wrote that Wes was their best friend. They always wrote about that.”
Two days after Wes died, the coach had to ask his players if they wanted to play their first-round play-off game that Monday. They thought about it. They discussed it. Then they decided, Yeah, this is what we do.
They moved the games to Hope College, where the Blackhawks drew over 3,000 fans each night. When the other teams playing that day took the court, they were all wearing the same black t-shirts Fennville wore, with Leonard’s name and number on the back, and “NEVER FORGOTTEN” on the front.
They struggled in their first game, caught fire in their second, then came back in the district finals Friday night from nine points down to win by three.
One man told me, “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t believe it.”
This Monday, when Fennville faced undefeated Schoolcraft, the Blackhawks finally ran out of gas and luck in the second half and lost, 86-62. But if you didn’t see the scoreboard, you’d have no idea Fennville was losing. The players kept working and the crowd kept cheering down to the last second.
Harder days are ahead. They know that.
They also know people like Wes Leonard don’t come along very often, and they might not see another like him the rest of their lives.
But the very qualities Wes Leonard brought out in them – pride, unity, and joy – are the very traits they’ll rely on to get them through.
The people of Fennville will never be the same.
But they will be okay.