Sean French was born on Sept. 21, 1984, and hit the ground running. "Never walked anywhere," says his father, Mark. "He'd run from the living room to the kitchen."
By age eight Sean is joyously running on the quarter-mile drive that encircles St. James Cemetery, two lots from his house outside Chatham, N.Y., 22 miles southeast of Albany. "We call it," says his mother, Cathy, "the St. James Track Club." Soon, Sean is running all over the village, waving to townspeople, like George Bailey running up Main Street in It's a Wonderful Life. Chatham really does have a Main Street, and an old movie palace where all shows are $3.50, and its very own George Bailey in Sean French—except Sean has more friends than George Bailey ever did.
Is it any wonder? Sean makes the Chatham High varsity track and cross-country teams in the seventh grade. In ninth grade he goes to the prom with the prettiest girl in Chatham, senior Heather Wemple. "No one was surprised when they walked in together," says friend Kevin Quinn. "Everyone knew Sean was the future Prom and Homecoming King."
Everyone knows it but Sean, who is oddly oblivious to every rule of high school cool. He is, for example, the first overnight guest in the home of classmate Ian Moore, whose little brother is autistic. Instantly, Ian's self-consciousness evaporates, as Sean rolls around on the floor with the giddy kid brother.
When a girl stumbles on the stairs at school—and her books fly and her cheeks turn crimson and the hallway echoes with laughter—Sean helps her to her feet, silencing his schoolmates. And when another girl arrives at a school dance and stands awkwardly along the wall with her mother, it's Sean who peels the mom from the girl and the girl from the wall and welcomes her into his conversation.
Sean is still serving Mass as an altar boy at St. James Catholic Church even after he grows tall and his robes grow short and he looks, says his father, "like he's wearing a skirt."
Of course, he can get away with it, because 6'1", 165-pound Sean French is one of the best athletes his county has seen in decades, setting the conference record (4:18.4) in the 1,600 meters as a sophomore and finishing second at the 2001 state finals. He now has so many medals that he sometimes holds back, letting slower teammates breast the tape. He wins the steeplechase in a state sectional as slowly as possible, to preserve the school record of his older brother, Eric, who tells his father, "I'm not afraid to say I've learned from my little brother."
Sean plans to run a 4:15 mile as a junior this spring, and a 4:10 next spring, and in college—who can say? He runs 75 miles a week and buses tables at Ciao Ristorante; he tries to shovel a lane of the school track following a 25-inch snowstorm and drinks only Powerade at a New Year's Eve party so he'll be fresh for a half-marathon the next day in Albany. At 10 minutes to midnight he calls home to wish his folks a Happy New Year and to say, just before hanging up, "I love you, Mom."
Sean watches the fireworks above Main Street at midnight and climbs into an '88 Pontiac driven by a classmate. At three minutes after midnight, on Route 203, the car skids, hits a tree and flips, throwing Sean, presumably unbelted, through a window. He is pronounced dead 90 minutes later. The other backseat passenger, his buddy Ian, the one with the autistic brother, is paralyzed from the navel down. The driver had been drinking and was stopped, only 18 days earlier, for driving while impaired. (He is charged with vehicular manslaughter.)
When Mark and Cathy French donate Sean's eyes, skin and organs—two hours after the accident, at Albany Medical Center—a surgeon says that, through Sean, others will see, feel and live. But of course, through Sean, others had been doing that all along, as we learn on Jan. 3, when Sean's casket is laid on the very altar on which he used to serve Mass.