It is hard to turn away from the picture, the frozen moment of joy. You want the mind to stop where the camera stops. You want the rose – so unbelievably sweet -- and not the thorns.
But there they are, piercing their way deep into your heart whenever you consider the tragic story of the triumphantly smiling 16-year-old in the photo, Wes Leonard.
Wes was the star of stars in little Fennville, Michigan, a place most of us never heard of until last week. It is a town of 1500 people that sits some 200 miles from Detroit, once the heart of the American Dream. Fennville is our modern Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the mythical “Our Town” of Thornton Wilder’s classic.
It is the setting for a play that was, for one moment in time, unbelievably precious.
The stage was set for high drama last Thursday night. This was the last game of the regular season, and the Fennville Blackhawks were 19-0, going for perfection. The bleachers were packed, filled with toddlers and old-timers and cheerleaders tossing their pom-poms to the heavens. It was a freezing night outside, but the gym was ablaze with emotion. Every call by the officials was a cause of celebration or outrage. Every ball that hung on the rim for a split second was a lump in the throat. The ticking of the game clock was a communal pulse.
What was the significance of this game in the grand scheme? What is the significance of anything in the grand scheme? Here in this little speck of the universe, this game mattered.
What would 20-0 mean? It would be a sparkling trophy in the case, a grand banner on the cinder block wall, yearbook photos to pore over in all those reunions to come. Remember when?
There was one big obstacle, though. Fennville was up against a formidable opponent in the Bridgman Bees. They had had their own special season, winning a conference championship, creating their own memories for a lifetime. The game was tight and tense, every possession filled with urgency. How excruciating it would be to lose this game, to come so close, only to fall short. Surely, Fennville fans believed, Wes would carry them through.
Wes was apparently the toast of this school, where his mom works as the choir director. “The quintessential all-American kid,” according to school superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer, Wes had been the quarterback who had led Fennville to glory on the gridiron. On the hardwood, he had already eclipsed the coveted 1,000 point mark in his high school career. (In the mind’s eye, the movie of that milestone rolls. The game is stopped. Head coach Ryan Klingler presents his star with the ball. The fans go wild, Wes’s achievement making them all feel better about themselves, bonding this small town in the magical way that only high school sports can.)
Sure, he had been complaining of flu-like symptoms earlier in the week, but with Wes on the court, how could Fennville lose?
Back and forth it went. Fans bit their fingernails, bit their shirts, covered their eyes, held their breath. The game spilled into overtime.
With 30 seconds left and the score tied at 55, Wes found a seam in the Bridgman defense, drove hard to the hoop, and rolled in the go-ahead layup. Moments later, the 57-55 victory in the books, the fans stormed the court. Wes’s teammates held him aloft. Pictures and video fill the Internet of this perfect moment. Could it be any sweeter?
Twenty-five years ago this winter I was living in southern New Hampshire, not far from the mythical Grover’s Corners. That was the winter when New Hampshire’s own Christa McAuliffe, a vibrant spirit, was set to become the first teacher to go into space aboard the shuttle Challenger. It was a moment of wonderful idealism in our country, reminiscent of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.”
There were 73 seconds of pure celebration when the Challenger took off into the clear blue sky that January morning. You wanted to freeze that moment in all of its hope, all of its possibilities.
And then, of course, there was the terrible trail of smoke.
How do we begin to make any sense of Wes Leonard collapsing on the floor, apparently of an enlarged heart, in the aftermath of his game-winning shot? How can we cope with such anguish following such joy? It is hard to imagine what it is like for Wes’s family and friends, his classmates, his teammates, all the good people crammed into that gym in Fennville, Michigan on a cold Thursday night in early March.
From our great works of art, we understand that tomorrow is not guaranteed, that today is all we know. Still, we cringe at Romeo and Juliet getting to taste only a tiny bit of the nectar of young love. We feel the painful truth of teenaged Emily Webb looking back at the living in “Our Town” and lamenting, “They don’t understand, do they?”
We know, but it is true: we don’t really understand. More accurately, we don’t hold onto what we know about the preciousness of the day – until we are startled back into reclaiming it by someone like Christa McAuliffe or Wes Leonard.
An athlete dying young provides a particular jolt, as the poet A.E. Housman once reminded us. The young athlete is our societal perfection, our timeless and invincible hope. But the young athlete is not a statue. The young athlete is human, subject to the same slings and arrows we all are.
We all wish that the star-crossed Wes Leonard could have lived a long life, carrying Fennville into the playoffs, carrying the sense of who he might become into the days ahead. He was just 16 when he scored the winning hoop, just 16 when he died. It is an amazingly bitter loss, even as people in Fennville, and the rest of us here in Our Town, must thank him for providing the gift of a perfect season and a piercing reminder to hold onto what we know to be true.
-- Marty Dobrow is a professor of communications at Springfield College, a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe and author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream (UMass Press, 2010).