Fennville, Michigan – On Monday, I drove across Michigan to see a Class C regional semi-final basketball game, pitting tiny Schoolcraft High School against even tinier Fennville.
Both schools were undefeated – but that’s not why I was going. I was going to see the impact of a young man who would not be there.
Before I drove back, I also learned how quickly even a record-breaking basketball game can become utterly insignificant – and then, just a few days later, how the next game can matter so much.
Fennville is about 200 miles from Detroit, but it might as well be 200 light years. When you approach Fennville, you pass a sign declaring, “Hometown of Richard ‘Richie’ Jordan, Member of the 2001 National High School Sports Hall of Fame.”
You haven’t heard of Richie Jordan, who graduated almost 50 years ago and stands only 5-7. But everyone around here has, and down at the Blue Goose Café, they still talk about all the records he set in football, basketball and baseball. But the last few years, they’ve been talking about Wes Leonard.
When Gary Leonard joined his brother’s company in Holland, near Lake Michigan, the family could have moved to any number of nearby towns, but chose little Fennville, which has just 1,500-some people, a third of them high school students. Here, the whole town comes out for football and basketball games – and musicals and graduations, too.
“I left Fennville for another place,” English teacher Melissa Hoover recalled in the teachers’ lounge, “and I kept saying, ‘In Fennville they do this,’ and ‘In Fennville they do that.’ Finally, one of the teachers said, ‘Well, maybe you should go back to Fennville.’ She was right. So I did.”
The Leonards loved Fennville, and Fennville loved them back.
Their oldest son, 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-ed kids 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.”
No matter what you were like in high school, you’d want Wes Leonard to be your friend. And he would be.
As an athlete, Leonard was the best thing to come out of Fennville since Richie Jordan himself – something people around here don’t say lightly. Leonard was the team’s star quarterback – he threw seven touchdowns in one game this past fall – but it was on the basketball court where the junior center really connected with the fans. Sitting so close, they could feel his energy and drive and passion – and see his trademark grin.
But even with Leonard leading the team, no one dared to imagine they’d enter their last regular season game with a perfect 19-0 mark.
When the Bridgman Bees jumped out to an 11-point half-time lead, Leonard took over, pushing the game to overtime. Then, with about 30 seconds left, he drove the lane for a pretty lay-up – and the win. Fennville’s fans rushed the court, and hoisted their hero onto their shoulders.
It was the kind of ending that sends announcers into paroxysms of hyperbole: Incredible! Unbelievable! Unthinkable!
Then, just seconds later, the truly unthinkable actually happened: Wes Leonard’s enlarged heart gave out, and he collapsed, right on the court.
His father ran down to him, yelling, “Breathe, Wes, breathe! Don’t die on me!” The paramedics loaded Leonard into an ambulance, where they worked to get his heart pumping again. Gary and Jocelyn could only look through the back window, helpless.
Before midnight, the town pastor emerged from the hospital to tell the crowd Wes Leonard had died.
When a small town hero fulfills his fans’ every dream, they put up signs about him on the city limits. What happens to that town when its hero falls right in front of them?
The next day the grade school kids clutched teddy bears, and cried in the corner. Wes’s classmates hugged and sobbed in the hallways. The older townspeople gathered at the Blue Goose, talking about him softly, with tears in their eyes.
“If I was twice as good as everyone else, I’d be arrogant,” said Mike Peel, 57, a real estate agent in nearby Douglas. “But he never was. Never even argued bad calls. He was the kind of kid who could hug his mom in front of a thousand people and not feel embarrassed about it.”
Letters and posters came from as far away as the Philippines and Cambodia. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors asked what they could do to help, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo cut practice short to drive to Fennville to talk to the family and the team, and Bo Kimble, whose Loyola Marymount teammate Hank Gathers died on the court from the same condition in 1990, drove all night from Philadelphia to be with them for four days, arriving as a famous stranger and leaving as a close friend. The Blackhawks’ arch-rivals in Saugatuck hosted the luncheon after the funeral.
The coach had to ask his players if they wanted to play their first-round playoff game that Monday. They thought about it. They discussed it. Then they decided, Yes. 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 that 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. “If you weren’t there,” Mike Peel said, “you wouldn’t believe it.”
This Monday, when Fennville faced 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 getting trounced. The players kept working just as hard, and the crowd kept cheering just as loud, to the very last second.
Harder days are ahead. They know that.
They also know people like Wes Leonard come along in a place like Fennville every 50 years or so, 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.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.