Mich. player was "larger than life," mourners told

By Tim Martin/The Associated Press

HOLLAND, Mich. — Classmates, coaches and former opponents were among the mourners who filled a southwest Michigan church Tuesday to celebrate the short life of a teen athlete who friends and family say will have a long-lasting impact.

Many of the more than 1,500 people at Wes Leonard’s funeral wore orange ribbons, and some released orange and black balloons outside the church, mirroring the colors of the Fennville High team that he made a game-winning shot for last week before collapsing on the basketball court.

The night before they paid tribute to Leonard at the church, his teammates honored the 16-year-old junior as they played through their grief to win their first game in the state Class C tournament.

Those who knew the “larger than life” football and basketball star always recognized that he was special, even apart from sports, his uncle, Jim Leonard, said during the church service. National attention in the wake of Leonard’s death has touted his character to a far broader audience.

“It’s just amazing that now the whole world knows how special he was,” Jim Leonard said at Christ Memorial Church. “Wes will not be forgotten.”

Leonard died of cardiac arrest from an enlarged heart last Thursday, moments after his shot gave the undefeated Blackhawks a victory to wrap up the regular season.

Opponents said they admired Leonard’s game-winning feats in basketball and football — he also was the Fennville football team’s star quarterback — but they also respected his grace, sportsmanship and leadership.

“No negativity,” said Devin Brock, a Bloomingdale basketball player who competed against Fennville, said of Leonard. “He was always positive.”

Fennville is a town of about 1,400 near Lake Michigan, but the school district covers a broader area. A bus from the Gobles and Bloomingdale districts arrived at the funeral with more than 70 students. Many other school districts were represented as well.

There were tears, but there also were laughs at Tuesday’s service as friends and family remembered some of Leonard’s good-natured antics and dares at church groups and on family trips.

Classes were canceled Tuesday in the district, which has been grieving since Leonard’s death.

“It’s just been really tough…not having Wes at school has just been really hard,” said Marcos Vega, a Fennville student. “Wes was always a happy kid. He always had a smile on his face.”

The Rev. Gary Peterson, the pastor of Fennville United Methodist Church, recalled Leonard’s love for sports, the outdoors and his Christian faith. Since last week, Peterson said many teenagers have told him about Leonard’s strong faith and how he treated others with compassion and love.

“Wes loved life,” Peterson said. “He loved the world around him and the people he came into contact with. He looked for the goodness.”

Sports was a dominant theme in Leonard’s life, and the funeral program listed sections of the memorial as first quarter, second quarter, halftime, third quarter, fourth quarter and “final victory.”

Mourners saw video tributes to Leonard that showed him playing football and basketball along with photos of him outside of athletics. Flowers, including a wreath with orange flowers, surrounded his casket. The funeral ended with a rap song inspired by Leonard called “Blackhawk Down.”

Some of the lyrics: “They say the good die young, wish this was a dream,” and “You’re in the sky where the real stars belong.”

The Blackhawks, at 21-0, are one of the highest-rated Class C teams in the state headed into Wednesday’s second round district game.

Monday night’s 65-54 win over Lawrence was emotion-filled before it ever started. In tribute to Leonard, Fennville sent just four players onto the court before the opening tip. The fifth player took the court after a dramatic pause to wild cheering from the crowd.

“I think he was watching down on us,” Fennville coach Ryan Klingler said after the game.