In The Case of Wes Leonard

The dateline on the story left one shrugging: 

Fennville, MI

“Where’s that?” we all wondered…

It’s a little town situated near Lake Michigan and before March 5th, it didn’t mean much to anyone who didn’t live there…or had relatives there.  But the story that broke from the confines of that small berg Thursday night,  still resonates with so many peolple almost a week later.

It began last Thursday night with of all things, a  basektball game in a Fennville high school gymnasium.  And inthe wanign seconds of that very important game, a young man made the perfect shot that ended a perfect 20-0 season.  Sixteen-year-old, Wes Leonard, the star player was lifted into the air in celebration.  Shouts, high fives…pats on the backs….all smiles.  His teammates were jubilant,  as were the coaches and of course, the fans.  The district playoffs were in a future that for this team and its newly heralded hero,  seemed endless with possibilities.

But it all ended seconds later, literally with a heartbeat and then, with the absence of one.   Leonard slumped to the gym floor, his undiagnosed enlarged heart had finally betrayed him and he went into cardiac arrest right there on the parquet;  his young life fading mere seconds after making  the winning lay-up that was heard all over Fennville. Packed bleachers contained people who a minute earlier cried because of such a sweet  victory, now cried because they were witnessing the unthinkable.

Wes Leonard essentially died in front of everyone he knew and loved.   It was the most public of deaths. In an instant, he was gone.  But hardly forgotten, nor will he be  for some time to come.  In fact, he’s being remembered  this week as the good, decent boy he was: a friendly, likeable, “all-American kid” whose athletic prowess was well recorded throughout his school days in Fennville.   It’s been  said that opposing coaches sometimes asked to see his birth certificate  for proof of his age.  They couldn’t believe that someone so young had such skill sets.   And he did. 

Leonard had something of a Midas touch when it came to whenever he touched a game ball…any game ball, apparently.   Leonard played baseball as well has he handled a basketball, plus he was also quarterback for the Fennville football team, which won the Southwestern Athletic Conference North Division championship this past season. Leonard threw seven touchdowns in the winning game.  His goal was to be a Division 1 athlete.   And he took care of his body as a result.  He worked out.  He knew all about conditioning.  It’s been said he was an athlete’s athlete.

But sadly, a perfectly tuned body is only as strong as the organs it surrounds.   Perfection, even in all its perceived glory, is no match for a heart that’s compromised. 

At first, coaches thought Leonard  collapsed do to heat stroke.  Ice packs were applied to the body of the dying player, but to no avail.   When paramedics arrived, they immediately performed CPR and took Leonard to a defibrillator on the court. He was then was rushed by ambulance to nearby Holland Hospital, where he died two hours later. 

The thrill of victory turned to disbelief then turned to the agony.  Mourning replaced celebratory joy.

For those of us who didn’t know Leonard, much less where Fennville , Michigan is, well, of course we’re all removed from this story by virtue of miles and a lack of familiarity.  And  while we can empathize with his family and friends, in reality we have no real emotional connection…..but then again, that isn’t true.  Not completely.  The truth is, at various times in our lives, we’ve all lost a “Wes Leonard” of our own.   There was those high school classmates who were killed in that traffic accident on Route 7.   There was the funny guy we remember from our Sr. year who got drafted early and six months later, died in the jungles of Southeast Asia after an ambush.   There was the real ambitious guy we graduated college with; the one who wanted to make his first million by age 26, who believed cocaine could help him reach his avaricious dreams faster, but he OD’d on the stuff in the men’s bathroom early one Thursday morning in some anonymous hi-rise in LA.     There was the young mother we heard about in the news…the one who couldn’t shake her post partum depression and killed herself before she could harm her kids.  These are the tragic, senseless deaths that made us think, that reminded us all of our mortality, regardless of whether were 16 or 60.

That said, one can’t help but take a look at this young man’s short life which was  introduced to the majority of us through his death, and wonder, about the finite nature of life and how precarious that is.   You never know when or how it will happen.   And that makes you think.   It makes you want to prioritize your life and what’s important.  It makes you want to hold those who are dear to you even closer. 

It seems that we are more prone to count our blessings when we have to face our fears–dying;  that final ending  is one of the biggest.   And then again, it  might make you want to rethink your ‘glass half empty’ mode of living.   Life is too short for that kind of relentless pessimism.   I didn’t know Wes Leonard or anything about his young life, but I somehow doubt if he was never anything but optimistic about his world and the future role he’d play in it.   Perhaps, there are those that will say at 16, he didn’t have a choice.  He hadn’t lived long enough to suffer any of life’s real slings and arrows.   He didn’t have time to become jaded.   

Unfortunately, falling victim to experience fueled  cynicism is easy; staying  positive is difficult.    There’s just so much unfolding around us.  

More often than not, we don’t see the changes happening to us or around us.  Time is covert that way.    In reality, we actually witness the aging process happening right before our eyes;  we just never notice it.   It just kind of sneaks up on us one day, then we suddenly notice a line or a crease around our eyes that we never noticed before.  That gray hair…or hairs that somehow added their different hues to our locks overnight.    When did that happen?   And more importantly, we ask how did it happen?   It’s the by-product of having lived.    Aging is that reward for a life lived.   But what if you don’t like the physical attributes?   You can color your gray hair; enlist a plastic surgeon’s scalpel or….save a bundle and a worthless Vicodin prescriptions by learning  to love what time hath wrought.

Other problems aren’t so easily remedied.  These are matters of the heart, the soul. and the conscience.    You solve those dilemmas by either walking away completely or deciding to stay and ride it out because whatever the problem is, it’s worth putting more effort into.   But only you know the merits of staying or going.     Only you know what’s worth keeping or that from which you must walk away.  

So, if it’s worth it, love those you can.   Hold them close.  Make every effort to treat them right.   If you can’t, then leave.  If you’re just spinning your wheels in dead-end relationships, be them emotional or in the career arena, please rethink your involvement.    To stagnate is to die.  As I’ve said;  as so many have told you,  life is way too short to be that bored and that unhappy.

One can surmize from the accolades bestoyed upon Wes Leonard’s memory that he was never bored and rarely unhappy.   Because of that, he was in many ways very, very lucky.  Sure, it was his time to go, but he did so as a happy, young man.  He’d just scored the winning basket that capped a perfect season.   He died in a place he loved; doing what he loved to do.   From what I’ve read, he packed purpose in his short 16-years in this world and he did it as every kid does,  thinking he had all the time in the world to make it to 17….and beyond.     

But he didn’t.  And he had no clue that he wouldn’t.  

His very last Facebook entry proved it.  This is what he wrote the night before he died.  It is short, sweet and like Wes himself, focused: 

“Got a good long shower …ready for bed and game tomorrow!!!!!”

Gee, my last Facebook entry centered around a penis joke.

My God, I think I have much to think about.



  1. I’ve been coaching basketball the past 26 years as an avocation, and I can tell you that the basketball coaching bulletin boards are all abuzz with this tragically sad story. It strikes a universal chord in each of us that transcends the realm of sports altogether. Thanks for putting it into well-thought words LK.

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