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Wes Leonard's Family, Fennville Teammates and Community Say Goodbye

Jerry MurphyContributor IMarch 8, 2011

HOLLAND- March 7:  Fennville High School basketball team members stand together for a moment of silence for Wes Leonard before the MHSAA Boys Class C Basketball tournament game against Lawrence High School  March 7, 2011 in Holland, Michigan. Leonard, age 16, a student and star athlete at Fennville High School in Fennville, Michigan, collapsed on a basketball court moments after making the winning shot in overtime to get his team into the Class C District Playoffs. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward at a Holland, Michigan hospital. The cause of death was cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

There was no school in Fennville, Michigan today. Instead, the school, along with its community and other nearby communities as well, said goodbye to 16-year-old Wes Leonard.

Wes passed away last Thursday just moments after hitting the game-winning layup in a 57-55 victory over rival Bridgman that sealed a perfect 20-0 season for the Fennville Blackhawks. It seemed like the perfect end to a perfect season. After all, Bridgman was responsible for ending the Blackhawks' season last year in the regional finals. 

Moments later, that jubilation turned to concern and then to tragedy as Leonard, minutes removed from his heroic final shot, in front of 1,400 stunned onlookers, collapsed, and with his father by his side, died on the court.

Cause of death was cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart. It was a condition neither he nor his parents were even aware of.

In a perfect world, 16-year-old boys and their parents shouldn't even be required to be aware of such a thing. The only things a 16-year-old boy should be concerned with are God, good grades, sports and girls (preferably in that order).

But Wes' passing brings us crashing back to the harsh reality that this is not a perfect world. It is a world where 16-year-old star athletes and, even more importantly, upstanding citizens such as Wes Leonard die unexpectedly.

As a parent myself, I cannot even begin to imagine the pain his parents, Gary and Jocelyn, are experiencing right now. As I write this article, tears streaming down my face, the thought of only being allowed eight more years with my eight year-old son brings forth thoughts and feelings I cannot put into words.

No parent should ever have to.

But there Gary and Jocelyn were Monday night in the crowd of more than 3,400 rooting on the Blackhawks. The entire gymnasium stood and cheered when they entered just as they did previously when Wes' younger brother Mitchell entered with Leonard's Blackhawk teammates.

And again they stood and cheered when the Lawrence players and coaches entered. You see, in a gesture normally reserved for a Hollywood script, the Lawrence school corporation, even though they were supposed to be hosting the game, agreed to have the game moved to a remote site at Hope College, as their gym could not seat more than 800.

During warm-ups, the Lawrence players, in unison with the Fennville players, wore black t-shirts that said "Never Forgotten" on the front with Leonard's name and No. 35 on the back. Even the opponent was grieving.

Then, in memory of their fallen teammate, the Blackhawks sent four players out for the opening tip. Moments later, Xavier Grigg (who later would score 11 points, Leonard style, in a deciding 20-8 run), substituted for Wes for the final time and the playoffs began.

It is times like these that make me glad I am a sports fan. Many say that sports are taken too seriously in today's world and that many fans overreact when it comes to their teams or favorite players (after all, fan is short for fanatic). And I don't always disagree with that statement. 

But sports can heal. And in this case, albeit very slowly, the Fennville community is healing. You see, Fennville won that game against Lawrence on Monday night, 65-54.

Then, today, after saying goodbye to Wes, as pallbearers placed his casket into the hearse, people from the different attending communities lined the sidewalk outside the church and released orange and black balloons, the Fennville school colors, into the air.

I'm not one of the privileged few who got to know Wes. But as his Blackhawk teammates, coaches and community prepare for the next step in their heart-wrenching journey, I can't help but think about him.

You see, in a world full of egomaniacs like Charlie Sheen, greedy NFL owners and widespread political unrest, Wes' passing should teach us one thing: to live life to the fullest because you never know when it will all be taken away from you. Birth certificates do not have an expiration date.

Many in Fennville might say this is just like Wes; still teaching us even after he is gone.

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