The soft glow of candlelight illuminated the perimeter of Eastlake Community Park Monday night; hundreds of candles, of all shapes and sizes, slowly and silently moved in unison with their human hosts who had gathered in remembrance of a beloved classmate, friend and family member.
That’s how the neighboring community acknowledged the untimely passing of Eastlake High School senior Tommy Henderson, a three-sport athlete at the east side Chula Vista school.
Henderson died suddenly and unexpectedly Sunday night. He was to celebrate his 18th birthday next month.
Shortly after his death became known, friends began posting messages on Facebook. What began as plans for an impromptu get-together among friends to celebrate his life soon developed through social media networking into a massive outpouring of love and support.
“Kids got together on Facebook and said let’s do this not knowing really what was going to happen,” EHS yearbook advisor Jauhn Hinkle said.
What happened was beyond anyone’s expectations — rivaling some of the most endearing moments from that immortal 1939 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart.
“It’s amazing to see how many people Tommy’s life touched,” EHS physics teacher and assistant football coach Lee Price said.
People began gathering near the school’s tennis courts shortly before 8 p.m. Some sat silently in cars waiting for others to arrive.
One woman was pushing a baby stroller; one boy arrived in a wheelchair, his leg in a cast. They both knew they had to be there.
The mood was understandably somber, and several sobs could be heard as Price talked about Henderson’s impact on other students on campus as the ceremony began.
A photo slideshow preceded Price’s comments. Mourners began lighting candles and, led by Henderson’s family, began to light the darkness enveloping the nearby park.
The crowd swelled to an estimated 400 individuals. The entire park was ringed by candlelight at one point.
EHS assistant principal George Ohnesorgen said the candlelight vigil was a healing process for students.
“This allowed students a chance to express themselves, to show their friendship and support,” Ohnesorgen said.
EHS student Shea Fordham was among the early arrivals. He had Henderson’s lacrosse uniform number — 23 — painted in blue on his left cheek.
“We’re here to show respect to him as friends and help support his family,” he said.
Fordham — like many at Monday’s life celebration — described Henderson as outgoing and good-humored.
Price called him a “special kid with a big smile.”
Henderson was one of three senior captains on this year’s Eastlake boys lacrosse team. He was supposed to be in uniform for Monday’s Metro Conference opener at Mar Vista High School.
Titan players and coaches began filtering into the school’s tennis courts shortly before the 8 p.m. start after arriving back from Imperial Beach.
Ohnesorgen said the school’s principal, Maria Esther Lizarraga, as well as several counselors attended the 5 p.m. game.
Team members, understandably shocked and dismayed by their friend's death, dedicated both the game and the rest of the season to Henderson’s memory.
During pregame introductions, Eastlake intentionally left a space vacant in the line-up where Henderson would have stood.
The Titans won the game 19-3.
“There were more people at that game than at any other game I can remember,” EHS senior captain Casey Stanko said.
EHS lacrosse coach Nestor Rosas, his staff and his players were understandably devastated by the news. Rosas said the team elected to go forward with its game at Mar Vista High School — ironically the Titans’ league opener — with the blessing and support of Henderson’s mother Theresa.
Her presence in the team’s pre-game huddle helped begin the healing process for the team, he said.
"I told the players after the game that Tommy has moved on to a bigger game and now we must move on," Rosas said.
Stanko said he, Henderson, and classmate Devon Ballow, will remain as the team’s three senior captains this season.
“Tommy’s motto was that we were going to beat Otay Ranch (the three-time defending league champion and arch rival) and we were going to win league,” Stanko said. “We’re going to keep to that and go with that because that’s what Tommy would have wanted.
“We’re definitely going to do it — do it for Tommy.”
Stanko said Henderson was the first person in the Eastlake community to touch his life.
Stanko, a two-time conference wrestling champion and the lacrosse team's 2012 MVP, had moved into the Eastlake area from Japan and, on his first day as a first-grader at Arroyo Vista Elementary School, Stanko said the teacher asked for volunteers to show the newcomer around campus.
“Tommy was the first one to raise his hand,” Stanko said. “He was my very first friend in Eastlake.”
It should be noted that Monday’s vigil drew support from the surrounding community, not just from the immediate EHS student body.
Several student-athletes were still wearing their baseball or lacrosse uniforms after leaving games earlier in the afternoon or evening to attend Monday’s vigil.
In fact, about 20 Otay Ranch lacrosse players attended the vigil after returning from their game at Montgomery High School. Prominent among them was Jake Weidner, the reigning Metro Conference Player of the Year, who grew up playing youth lacrosse with several current Titan players.
“It really didn’t matter what jersey they were wearing, they were here because they knew Tommy,” Stanko said. "That's what mattered."
Henderson played football, winning a San Diego Section Division I championship as a freshman in 2009, though a shoulder injury later forced him to quit playing. He also wrestled and turned his attention as well to lacrosse.
He was the starting defensive pole on this year’s team and had garnered one assist in the team’s initial five games to start the spring sports season.
Every EHS teammate spoke of Henderson as a brother.
Stanko called him a “man of conviction” and someone with pure leadership capabilities befitting his role as a team captain.
“Everything he did, he did 100 percent,” Stanko said. “There wasn’t any stopping him.
“The qualities you expect from a team leader … he had them.”
Henderson was excited about the future; he had recently received a partial scholarship to play college lacrosse at the University of Great Falls. He was to be a member of the Montana school’s first-ever men’s lacrosse team.
Many handmade signs adorning the school’s tennis courts were colored in green or carried shamrock motifs. Henderson was proud of his Irish heritage and St. Patrick’s Day was his favorite holiday, according to those who knew him well.
At the end of the candlelight walk, students were encouraged to sign a banner giving their last farewells to their friend. The banner covered three tables and every inch of space was filled with a heartfelt message — addressed personally to Henderson. There were more than 150 of them.
“He was a very good athlete, so he made a lot of friends during his time at Eastlake High School,” said photographer Jon Bigornia, whose son Matthew grew up playing youth baseball with Henderson at Eastlake Little League and later reconnected with him at Eastlake Middle School and with the Eastlake Panthers youth football team.
The elder Bigornia, whose sports photographs regularly adorn EHS football game programs, termed Monday’s gathering “a tremendous outpouring.”
He was not alone in offering a final tribute to the well-liked Henderson.
As people departed, they left their candles, still burning, beside a memorial adorned with his photograph in front of the tennis courts.
A memorial service is scheduled for Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m. at the Eastlake Community Church. The public is welcome.
The EHS lacrosse team returns to action Wednesday, March 20, at Montgomery High School at 5:30 p.m., and will host Olympian at home on Friday, March 22, also at 5:30 p.m.
Team members are confident a special someone will be watching over them the rest of the season. Should the Titans be successful in their quest to win the league banner, they are certain that Henderson will be the loudest one cheering.
Anyone wishing to make donations to help Henderson’s family can do so by contacting New Hope Community Church, 2720 Eastlake Parkway, Chula Vista 91915. Donors are asked to designate Tommy or Teresa Henderson in the memo line. Call 600-4160 for more information.
Eastlake-Otay Ranch lacrosse rivalry is all about community
The outpouring Monday night from Chula Vista’s east side community furthered the healing process for classmates and family members of Eastlake High School senior Thomas Henderson, who died tragically just hours before in a swimming pool accident.
Doug Murphy, a former youth lacrosse coach of Henderson and the current Otay Ranch High School lacrosse coach, attended Monday’s candlelight vigil with several members of his team still in uniform.
Murphy coached Eastlake to three Metro Conference championships prior to Henderson’s arrival on campus, later coaching at Chula Vista and then Otay Ranch high schools.
He shared his thoughts on Henderson with Adrenaline Lacrosse’s website. These are his words:
“When I first met Tommy, he was an eighth grader and a football player who was moving through the process of learning to exhibit the finesse that is so crucial to successful lacrosse. He was a tough kid who carried himself like a linebacker and he usually deferred to his physical side on the lacrosse field. But he was also a humble and polite young man who would look you in the eye, listen and thus he learned the game pretty rapidly as a result.
“I left Eastlake High School at the end of the 2008 season, so I was never his high school coach, but I’m still treated like a welcomed friend when I intermittently interact with parents, players and coaches within the Titan family.
“I am presently the head lacrosse coach at Otay Ranch High School, the arch rival of Eastlake, but Eastlake is a respected opponent of ours and is comprised of a group of people whose lives, in many ways, intertwine almost seamlessly with many of the lives of the people within our lacrosse organization.
“My relationship with Tommy was a microcosm of the total South Bay lacrosse and, specifically, the Eastlake versus Otay Ranch rivalry. We loved each other for all but about five hours a year, when during our two annual contests, he respectfully wanted to kick me and my team’s teeth in and win every game against us, and my players wanted the same for his team. At each game’s end, there were handshakes, hugs and a continuation of the undying respect that most of us had for each other.
“My former players are like family to me. I found out about Tommy’s death from my 25-year- old daughter who’s known him as long as I have and who came down the hall crying ‘Tommy died, Tommy died.’
“I last spoke to Tommy about three weeks ago when I went out to watch Eastlake’s first game. I was helping some Eastlake parents and coaches put away tables, chairs and miscellaneous supplies after the game, when I was blind-sided by a bear hug from Tommy. ‘Hey, coach Murph! How’s it going?’ he said and we discussed his future college plans and our lives in general. He had become a man, and a good one, too.
“I am completely stunned right now and I don’t know if the tears will come, but the grieving process is sure to take quite a while.”
The heartbreaking news surrounding Henderson’s death affected the entire lacrosse community, not just in the South Bay region but throughout San Diego County as teams stood for a moment of silence in his honor on Monday.
EHS coach Nestor Rosas, his staff and his players were understandably devastated by the news. Rosas said the team elected to go forward with its game at Mar Vista High School with the blessing and support of Henderson’s mother Theresa.
Her presence in the team’s pre-game huddle helped begin the healing process for the team, he said.
“As she joined us in the team pre-game huddle, it was as if Tommy was there with us,” Rosas posted on his Facebook page. “The calm, peaceful sense of confidence as she spoke brought back the same influence that Tommy had to the team. RIP #23.”