Saturday, March 5, 2011

To an Athlete Dying Young: Wes Leonard

and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms.
My coworker, Paul—a man who loves all things Michigan, was the first of 50 people who asked me on Friday if I had heard the story of the high school basketball player, Wes Leonard, who collapsed on the court and later died after making a game-winning lay-up in overtime. Paul directed me to the front page of the Detroit Free Press where I learned the 16-year old athlete died of cardiac arrest brought on by dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition the athlete may not have known he had. I looked at his smiling face in the photo and the caption: Teammates hoist Wes Leonard up after he hit the game-winning basket Thursday night March 3, 2011 as the Fennville (Mich.) Blackhawks celebrate their victory against the Bridgman Bees, bringing their record to 20-0. Leonard collapsed on the court shortly afterward and died hours later at Holland Hospital. It was too much to handle----the final shot, the perfect season, the overtime win only to conclude in utter tragedy.

I turned to Paul and said “I simply cannot imagine how awful that must have been. To lose a student like that—I don’t know what our school would do. We could not stand it.” As I continued to wrap my head around the drama, his death and the finality of it all, the words of St. Francis de Sales came to mind--and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms. I kept repeating that prayer to myself. I knew I needed to look at the complete prayer. I longed to know the full context of its message.

Before I could get to the book where I kept that prayer, a list of perspectives related to this tragedy started to form in my mind—parents, friends, his teammates, coaches and fans.

As a teacher, I have always believed the classroom is sacred space. We are privy to conversations with young people about their hopes and dreams, their struggles and doubts. To lose a student midyear is particularly difficult for Wes’ vacant seat is a daily reminder of his death. I said a prayer for his teachers and his classmates.

As a coach, I know the impact so many of my athletes have had on my life, let alone their teammates. A team is a community within a community and Wes’ sudden death will leave them in shock for months to come. His absence will be profoundly acute as his surviving teammates are asked to play again this week.

I thought of his friends. As much as we claim kids grow up too quickly these days, teenagers are still so young and so impressionable. To lose a friend at their age, or any age for that matter is exceedingly difficult.

I am sure every parent emphathized with his parents. The idea of losing a son or daughter, so vibrant and so young is utterly devastating. How does one recover?

I even thought of the fans who witnessed an exciting game, only to have it end in this way. I go to a lot of high school basketball games. I delight in seeing my own students partake in their passions. And even among the players I do not know—home team or away, certain athletes catch my attention. I am amazed at their talent—any and everything, from their vertical leap, to their grit, hustle, soft touch…even their ability to work the referee. I wondered what I would have noticed...and missed in Wes.

I found the unnamed prayer of St. Francis de Sales and I thought, this prayer is for his parents, his coaches, teachers, teammates, friends and all those who have heard his story. Wes, I see your face, as you are held up by your teammates, smiling in their arms. For those who are left behind, even though we know you are with God, we stand now in need of being buried in God’s arms. Help us to be at peace, O Lord.

Be at peace --
Do not fear the changes of life --rather look to them with full hope as they arise.
God, whose very own you are, will deliver you from out of them.
He has kept you hitherto, and He will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms.
Do not be afraid of what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace --and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

--St. Francis de Sales

Photo Credits
Wes with his team
Wes Lay-up
Fans Mourn this loss

1 comment:

  1. Great article Anne; I'm pleased to have found your blog (via google search). I also enjoyed your article on Dave Duerson and Declan Sullivan. I'll be back ...

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    Jeanette O'Toole