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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
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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

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At the hospital, doctors found severe damage to Wes's left acromioclavicular joint, the part of the shoulder that helps raise the arm. The shoulder hung three or four inches below his right one. Full repair would require surgery, a cadaver ligament and a recovery of six to eight weeks. But a doctor told the Leonards that Wes could put it off until after basketball season if he strengthened the shoulder with physical therapy. He might even return to football before then.

Now, against Hartford, Xavier had his chance to start at quarterback. Wes cheered from the sideline as Xavier completed passes of 37 and 43 yards and kept the game close into the fourth quarter. Hartford led 21--13 when Xavier took the Blackhawks down the field with less than a minute left. Fennville was in Hartford territory when he threw over the middle, across his body, without looking off the defender. The interception sealed the game. Xavier was inconsolable. He hurried to the bus to be alone with his failure.

Xavier gladly stepped aside when Wes came back after the next game. Even with a separated left shoulder, Wes seemed better than ever. He threw five touchdown passes against Bangor. Five more against Gobles. Seven touchdowns and 448 yards against Bloomingdale. In the big rematch with Hartford in the playoffs, after the Hartford fans displayed a Blackhawks effigy in a coffin, Wes completed 17 of 23 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns—half of the yards and two of the touchdowns were to Xavier—and the Blackhawks quieted the Hartford fans with a 52--34 victory.

Fennville's loss on a bitter night to Montague in the round of 16 only hardened Wes's resolve to win a state basketball championship. At the start of the season he and Xavier agreed: They would finish that spring at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, playing together for the Class C state title.

In retrospect it seems absurd. The Blackhawks had no one resembling a center. They had only one consistent long-range shooter, Pete Alfaro, an unimposing sophomore who might have blown away in a strong wind. Their sixth man, Xavier, was playing his third-best sport in between doing the dishes and loads of laundry for a mother who could hardly get out of bed. They had just one starter over 6'1": their point guard, Wes, who carried them with a busted shoulder and a swollen heart.

They were a blue-collar team for a blue-collar town, and with every win they lured more factory workers and fruit pickers into the gym. On March 3, as they prepared to face the formidable Bridgman Bees, who were 17--2, the Blackhawks stood at 19--0, one win from a perfect regular season.

If anyone on the court could outmuscle Wes that night it was Bridgman's Michael Kamp, a buzz-cut sharpshooter who looked like a member of Delta Force. The game boiled down to a one-on-one contest between them. Kamp won the first half. He hit a three from the right corner and another from the left to give Bridgman a 6--2 lead. Wes came back with a spinning pull-up jumper in the lane to make it 6--4. Kamp hit another long jumper in the second quarter, making it 26--15, and then faked Wes into the air and slipped past him on the baseline for a layup that made it 30--18. He had outscored Wes 12--7, and Bridgman led 35--24 at the break.

Jerry Lemmons, sitting with Gary Leonard, heard Gary say something like, "Wes keeps screwing around, we're gonna lose this game."

Still, Wes looked cool as he walked toward the locker room. He had two quarters left to preserve the winning streak.

3. THREE GLORIOUS MINUTES

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