Fri, Mar 29 2013 04:43 PM Posted By: Phillip Brents
I believe the first time I encountered death at school was in junior high when a boy from a class below me died from leukemia. I knew the boy by name but had never interacted with him or his friends.
One day an announcement was simply made over the intercom noting that a tree would be planted in his honor on campus, noting his death in retrospect.
Those were different times. I guess adults felt that adolescents would be unable to effectively grieve for a schoolmate — and death in general — despite young men in their prime regularly coming home in body bags from Vietnam.
There was more. Later in high school, one of the star football players drowned over summer vacation and another boy died from cancer.
Then it hit closer when one of my sister’s close friends died in an automobile accident. My sister was absolutely crushed.
The world suddenly seemed a lot less innocent.
Young people continue to die and, in many cases, the best seem to go well before their time.
It’s a tragedy, to be sure, but a part of life.
My grandfather lived till he was 93; he outlived two of his six children and three wives.
Then there was my cousin Debbie. She was just 6 when hit by a car while crossing the street on her way home from school. From what hazy details I can recall, it might have even been on the last day of school.
I was just a toddler then. My parents told me Debbie loved to hold me in her arms whenever she stayed over; she was the angel of the Brents family and I don’t think anyone who knew her ever got over her death.
I never got to know her; I was barely 18 months old when she was taken.
I never got to know Eastlake High senior Tommy Henderson but many, many others did.
More than 1,000 friends, classmates and relatives attended a memorial service for him last Thursday at the Eastlake Community Church.
It was a testament to the hundreds of lives he touched during his 17 years on Earth and four years at EHS.
I was in the process of putting together a spring sports preview on boys lacrosse as well as a separate story on the heated Eastlake-Otay Ranch lacrosse rivalry. I had already interviewed coaches and key players on both teams as well as having taken photos of the three captains for each team.
Henderson was one of the student-athletes interviewed for the two stories.
The first story was in production during the week he died in a swimming pool accident.
It obviously didn’t have a happy ending.
Could a story be published with posthumous quotes? Would a photo of the three Titan senior captains still be relevant?
The answer to the first question was likely no, but I felt the photo of the three smiling EHS teens — comrades in arms, so to speak — should be seen.
Like many who attended the candlelight vigil held in Henderson’s memory the day after his death, I felt compelled to attend.
I had known Henderson only from a distance — through game photographs, line-ups and player statistics.
I had only spoken with him twice — each time while organizing a group photo of the EHS captains during his junior and senior years.
I was thus concerned how my presence would be viewed: that of a reporter trying to document a community outpouring of love and support or a ghoul out to capitalize on someone else’s pain and suffering.
I set out to be a neutral observer, and be as non-intrusive as possible. I think I accomplished my goal.
However, it was hard not to be affected by what I saw.
More than 400 people turned out to participate in the candlelight vigil that was quickly organized by friends through posts on Facebook and other social media.
The emotional impact was profound.
Days after the candlelight vigil, the onsite memorial remained in front of the school’s tennis courts, with lighters sticking out of hardened wax for use each night by those who wished to relight the candles.
A light still burned at EHS for Henderson.
Henderson’s death was obviously traumatic for his Titan teammates and coaches. One of the things that drew me to the candlelight vigil was to talk to Eastlake team members as fate had dealt them a particularly hard blow: the Titans were scheduled to have played their league opener earlier that evening.
“Kids started hearing rumors through social media and then I started getting messages Sunday night about Tommy,” EHS coach Nestor Rosas said. “Initially there was some disinformation about what had happened. It wasn’t until later when I got in touch with people closer to the situation that I found out myself what did happen.”
Rosas said the initial reaction he got from administrators at the school was to cancel the game scheduled the day following Henderson’s death.
“But I started talking with some of the boys, especially the captains, and more and more said the game should go on because that is what Tommy would have wanted,” the EHS coach explained.
And the game at Mar Vista High School did go on, and another followed at Montgomery High School on Wednesday — the day prior to Henderson’s memorial service.
The Titans won by scores of 19-3 and 21-1. The games were dedicated to Henderson, as are all games for the rest of the season.
The support for both Henderson and the team could be seen in the stands.
“I don’t think I had ever seen so many people at one of our games before,” Rosas said. “People made signs and took them all the way down to Imperial Beach.”
Junior Ryan Hayes led all scorers in the game at MVHS with seven points on two goals and five assists while senior co-captains Casey Stanko (five goals) and Devon Ballow (three goals, two assists) each collected five points.
Hayes led the team with six points (three goals, three assists) at Montgomery while Ballow scored four goals.
For the league opener at Mar Vista, Rosas said both the EHS principal and school psychologist were on hand for any students who needed support or guidance.
“There were three or four who took it harder than others … I think it affected some of the younger players on the team the most because Tommy had led our preseason drills and the younger players looked up to him,” the EHS coach explained.
“There were a few players who you could tell it affected; they were kind of quiet. One kid played OK but you could tell he ran with his head down during the game.”
Stanko, who called Henderson the first friend he made when his family moved into the Eastlake area, admitted there is a different vibe on the team now that Henderson is gone.
“You can tell there’s a different atmosphere on the team — that something has changed,” Stanko said.
Stanko said he felt honored to have been chosen to speak at the memorial service. He read a poem and recited an Irish prayer.
It was a particularly moving experience. Henderson’s lacrosse helmet and stick lay on top of the closed casket; inside, asleep forever, Henderson was dressed in his lacrosse uniform.
“It meant a lot to me to be able to speak and I knew it would have meant at lot to all the other people who couldn’t speak,” Stanko said. “I think if you asked anyone in the room if they wanted to say something about Tommy that a thousand people would have raised their hands.”
Bagpipes closed out the service for pallbearers.
The season goes on for Henderson’s teammates. The Titans defeated a first-year Olympian team, 15-2, last Friday. Stanko and Jordan Vicente each had three goals.
As in the previous two games following Henderson’s death, the spot where he normally would have stood during introductions as the team’s starting defensive pole was left vacant.
Players wore jerseys with Henderson’s name inscribed along the bottom hem. Hayes had No. 23 – Henderson’s jersey number – taped to the back of his helmet.
Rosas said the team plans to inaugurate a defensive MVP award beginning this year, aptly named the Tommy Henderson award.
“He was our starting D-guy … he was always there,” Rosas said.
And his memory will remain alive for all who receive his namesake award in years to come.
The odds suggest that each school in the Sweetwater Union High School District will lose a student at some point over the coming weeks, months or years. The relevance is to treat each instance with proper compassion and dignity.
The Sweetwater district maintains a staff of trained psychologists and counselors on each campus. For more information, contact the district office at 691-5500 (directory assistance) or 691-5564 (student services).
© 2009 The Star-News