SI Vault
 
THE LEGACY OF WES LEONARD
THOMAS LAKE
February 20, 2012
You may have heard about the Michigan high schooler who made a game-winning basket and then died. Here's the rest of the story: a violent car crash, a bone-shaking tackle, a near-perfect season, a reluctant substitute and a search for the will to carry on
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 20, 2012

The Legacy Of Wes Leonard

You may have heard about the Michigan high schooler who made a game-winning basket and then died. Here's the rest of the story: a violent car crash, a bone-shaking tackle, a near-perfect season, a reluctant substitute and a search for the will to carry on

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Then, after Lawrence responded with a basket, Xavier was called for carrying the ball. He kept picking up his dribble too soon. He threw a clumsy pass that a defender knocked away. He back-rimmed an open three. He threw another tipped pass. Even as his teammates—Alfaro, Adam Siegel, DeMarcus McGee, Reid Sexton—fought through the grief and played above themselves, Xavier fell apart. He threw a ridiculous one-handed pass from midcourt that was easily stolen by a Lawrence defender. He played lazy defense and let a Lawrence player hit a three in his face. Finally, after Xavier committed a two-shot foul, Coach Klingler mercifully pulled him out.

"I don't wanna play anymore," Xavier said, starting toward the locker room.

The coach grabbed his arm. "If Jocelyn and Gary can be strong for you," he said, "you can be strong for them and stay on the bench."

Xavier sat down and sobbed.

About 15 rows back, where he sat holding his wife, Gary Leonard thought, This was a mistake. Next fall he would work up the courage to attend a Blackhawks football game, in what would have been his son's senior season at quarterback, and make it partway through the national anthem before leaving in a panic to sit in his truck. And then he would come back the next week and find a way to sit through the whole song.

Down on the bench, as the basketball game went on, Coach Klingler put a brawny arm around Xavier. "If you don't wanna go back out there, you don't have to," he said. Xavier lowered his head. The court reflected a grid of searing white lights.

Next to Gary, Jocelyn looked down at Xavier and wished she could hold him in her arms. Letters from other bereaved parents were rolling in. Across America, a trail of enlarged and broken hearts: a football lineman in Nebraska, a wrestler in Oregon, a basketball player in Georgia, a swimmer right there in Michigan, and on and on. Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio. A defibrillator might have saved them, just as it might have saved Wes. Jocelyn blamed herself. She thought she'd been too slow, too indecisive, too uninformed. Well, never again. By summer she would be running a foundation to give schools and sports teams brand-new defibrillators and the training for their proper use. It would be called the Wes Leonard Heart Team. She would carry a defibrillator in her car and stand before group after group of teachers and coaches, showing them how to save lives by showing them how Fennville lost Wes. This is what I did wrong, she would say, the scene playing again and again like a movie in her head.

Maria looked down at her weeping son. When he was three years old, still rubbing her hair between his thumb and forefinger for comfort, Xavier got sick and had to stay in the hospital for three days. He was kept in a crib that looked like a cage. "Please, Mommy," he kept saying, "take me home." Now, with great effort, Maria stood up. She was going to take him home.

Weeks later, still bedridden on most days, Maria would receive a text message from Jocelyn inviting her to join the Wes Leonard Heart Team. This invitation would be her own defibrillator, the shock to bring her back into rhythm. Still too disabled to hold a regular job, she would make the Heart Team her volunteer occupation. Every day it would give her the strength to get out of bed.

Now, as she prepared to go get Xavier, someone asked her to sit down and give him a few more minutes. She did. The first quarter ended, with Lawrence leading 16--13. The fans chanted about Blackhawk power. They were still in the game for one reason: Siegel and McGee, two of Wes's best friends on the team, were playing like wild beasts.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11