Hardwood Heartbreak

Coach Ryan Klingler watched as the best player on his Fennville High School basketball team cut through the Bridgman High defense like butter for an easy bucket. Wes Leonard had just given the Blackhawks a 57–55 lead with 25 seconds left in the game.

One defensive stop later and the Blackhawks had done it. 20–0. The school’s first ever undefeated regular season. A sea of black and orange rushed the court to celebrate.

Klingler started walking to the locker room to get a ladder so his team could cut down the nets and preserve a lifelong memory.

As he rounded the old wooden bleachers in a gym filled with the stench of sweat, he heard his brother screaming his name. He knew something was wrong.

Klingler returned to the court to see Wes lying on the gym floor surrounded by hundreds of Blackhawks fans. He was not breathing.

Klingler’s euphoric high turned to a tragic low. An entire small West Michigan community would soon be grieving the loss of a beloved young athlete.

One in every seven deaths in the United States is caused by heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. It claims more lives annually than all forms of cancer combined.

Wes grew up in a small-town world, never once thinking he was a ticking time bomb. But doctors believe he was likely born with a genetic condition that led to dilated cardiomyopathy. But it was never detected. Not until it was too late.

He died of a sudden cardiac arrest caused by dilated cardiomyopathy on March 3, 2011. He was just 16 years old.

Sudden cardiac arrest is a condition where the heart suddenly loses all function and fails to pump blood. It goes undetected in most victims, especially in athletes.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is just one of many causes of sudden cardiac arrest. This particular type of cardiomyopathy causes the left ventricle — the heart’s main chamber — to enlarge, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood.

After the autopsy, doctors initially believed that an infection could have led to Wes’ cardiomyopathy. He had missed a game earlier in the season with flu-like symptoms and had been sick multiple times throughout that winter.

Shortly thereafter, doctors said it is more likely that he was born with a rare genetic condition that went undetected, leading to his death.

Tragedy in a small town

The Leonard family moved from Baldwin City, Kansas, to Fennville in 2005. Fennville reminded them a lot of Baldwin. Both small, blue-collar towns. Both caring communities.

Fennville is a working class town of around 1,300 residents near the shores of Lake Michigan. No interstates run through it. No stoplights. Not even a stop sign on Main Street.

Fennville is known for its fruit farms, cornfields and the Fenn Valley winery.

Fennville is a tight-knit little community where the residents take pride in their farms and local businesses. They get excited each spring when the Tastee Treet ice cream shop opens. Every October, the Goose Festival celebrates the migration that passes through the Todd Farm south of town.

But trumping all of that is the high school’s sports teams. The Blackhawks always bring the town together. Friday nights in the fall? Hoards of orange and black-clad fans fill the stands at Bruder Memorial Field for football games. Cold winter nights? Those same fans pack Morehead Gymnasium with a giant black and orange bird watching over them from the wall at center court.

Fennville fans take in the 2016 Never Forgotten Game at Morehead Gymnasium under the watch of the Blackhawk (Photo by Kyle Beery)

The 1,300 Fennville residents were devastated by Wes’ death. How could they not be?

The death of any student-athlete in any community will bring pain and sorrow. But Wes was not just any student athlete. Wes was an all-state athlete. In two different sports.

He could throw a football up and have it drop out of the sky 40 yards downfield right into his receiver’s hands. He could juke a tackler to the ground, take a hit from another, and keep running all the way to the end zone.

He began his varsity football career when he was 13 years old. A wide receiver lined up against 18-year-olds. His junior year he quarterbacked the Blackhawks to a win in the state playoffs.

On the hardwood, his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame could be driving to the hoop, and he would stop on a dime and hit a pull-up jump shot. With ease. He could dunk like it was no one’s business. In fact, the morning before the Bridgman game, he and teammate Demarcus McGee had a dunk contest in the gym. Wes bounced the ball off the backboard to himself and threw it down with thunder.

Wes also played baseball growing up. He threw multiple no-hitters in Little League games, and won a youth home run derby at 8 years old.

He had garnered attention from college scouts in basketball and football.

Sophomore year, he led the Hawks to their first district basketball title in seven years. And they were one point away from the team’s first-ever regional title. They lost the regional final that year to Bridgman, which made the 2011 matchup that much more meaningful to the team.

In other words, Wes was a big deal.

But it was not just his athletic prowess that made his death hurt so badly. He was a great person.

“Sometimes you read stories in the news that someone was a great person. That was actually Wes,” teammate Jordan VanderBok said. “That was how he was.”

Wes’ smile lit up a room, VanderBok said. He had a reputation in school for being that kid who would make friends with everyone. Even those who got picked on or didn’t fit in. And he didn’t do it for attention. He did it because it was the right thing to do. And it made him happy.

VanderBok was a senior for the Blackhawks when Wes died. They had spent two seasons as teammates and became close friends. VanderBok said he is one of many, many people who considered Wes to be their best friend. Wes’ good-hearted nature and sense of humor made it so easy to like him. That also made his death that much harder to understand.

“In the short amount of time that he was here, it’s crazy to think about the impact that he made on everybody in this town,” he said. “He changed everybody’s lives in some manner. He made everybody smile.”

VanderBok remembers he and his friends used to love giving Wes a hard time and poking fun at him. And Wes always took it so well. That was part of his charm, he said.

As with most sudden cardiac deaths, Wes had no prior heart health issues. His death completely blindsided Fennville, and it broke the hearts of the their community and beyond.

Sudden cardiac arrest can have that effect. And it can be that much more painful when it takes the life of such a promising young athlete.

Recommendations for saving lives

In April 2016 the Journal of the American College of Cardiology released a consensus statement on pre-participation heart screenings of collegiate athletes in conjunction with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

A task force convened by the NCAA comprised of multidisciplinary physician specialists and athletic trainers representing national sports and medical associations worked on the consensus statement for nearly two years.

In short, the consensus statement recommends that all NCAA athletes are subject to a pre-participation screening that includes the American Heart Association (AHA) 14-point recommendations and/or the Pre-Participation Physical Evaluation Monograph, Fourth Edition (PPE-4). Those documents focus on personal and family heart health.

In addition, the statement recommends student-athletes receive an electrocardiogram, though the NCAA cannot require these tests for a number of reasons.

Indiana University Health’s Dr. Michael Emery, a sports cardiologist, was one of eight authors of the recommendations. He said the purpose was to create cardiac health awareness and to lower the amount of sudden cardiac deaths in college athletes.

It is difficult to pinpoint the annual number of sudden cardiac deaths in athletes, Emery said. That is part of the reason it has taken so long to come up with recommendations.

Controversy surrounds the NCAA’s recommendations. Several years ago, many specialists lobbied for recommending or even mandating electrocardiograms.

An EKG (or ECG) is a test that measures the electrical efficiency of the heart. A healthy heart has a normal rhythm, and when the electrical system in the heart is abnormal, that can be a sign of other dangerous heart problems.

So an EKG can go a long way in helping detect life-threatening conditions. But some argue there are two problems with mandating that athletes have these tests.

EKGs can cost upwards of $50 apiece. To test every single NCAA athlete would cost more than $20 million.

Additionally, Emery said there are a limited number of specialists in the U.S. who can properly interpret an EKG. Without that specialization, EKGs can provide false-positive results.

False-positive tests can be a touchy subject, Emery thinks. On one hand, it could be devastating if someone misinterprets an EKG and tells a young athlete he should not play sports.

“We don’t want to give them this sense of fear and turn them into a couch potato,” he said, “when in fact they are perfectly healthy. That could even lead to more problems with someone becoming completely inactive, living their life in fear.”

But on the other hand, they do not want to have a situation where a test is misinterpreted, and they let someone play who did, in fact, have a serious issue and wound up paying the price.

Emery said the recommendations are the right step forward in spreading cardiac awareness and ensuring the safety of NCAA athletes. Emery said he hopes maybe the guidelines can help prevent another story like that of Hank Gathers.

Losing a legend

The Loyola Marymount University Lions took the college basketball world by storm in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Leading the charge was Hank Gathers.

Gathers was a 6-foot-7 star out of Dobbins Technical High School in Philadelphia. He and Bo Kimble grew up together in the Raymond Rosen projects of North Philly.

After winning the 1985 city championship, they went out west to play together at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They transferred across the city to Loyola Marymount after the 1985–1986 season when USC hired George Raveling as its new head coach following their freshman year.

Over the next couple years, Hank became the face of the West Coast Conference. He won back-to-back conference player of the year awards and conference tournament most valuable player awards.

By the 1989–1990 season, the Lions were known across the country as a high-flying, fast-paced team. They averaged an NCAA record 139 points per game that year under coach Paul Westhead’s system. Hank himself averaged 29 points and 11 rebounds per game.

Westhead’s system was simple. Outrun the opponent, take more shots, and be in better shape. Westhead had the team doing intense conditioning during the offseason so they would not be tired at the ends of games, while their opponents were merely trying to keep up.

With Hank and his buddy Bo Kimble’s combined 35 points per game, the Lions had things rolling come conference tournament time. They held the No. 1 seed, and faced off with Portland University in the semifinals on March 4, 1990.

“I had a strange feeling that day that something was going to happen,” Hank’s brother Derrick said. “And it did. That’s the day my brother died. The day my best friend died.”

Teammate Terrell Lowery threw an alley-oop pass to Hank from half court, and he slammed it home with authority.

Seconds later, he dropped to the floor. Almost exactly 21 years to the day before Wes Leonard died, Hank went into cardiac arrest, caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Just like that. A college star and a sure bet to make it in the NBA. Gone.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy differs from dilated cardiomyopathy in that thickened walls in the heart muscle are the cause of the bad electrical rhythm. But differently from Wes, there were possible warning signs for Hank.

He passed out on Dec. 9, 1989, in a home game against the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Hank called his brother Derrick the next day to tell him what had happened. And his little brother came right to his side at the hospital.

Derrick was born 10 months after Hank. They grew up like twins. They slept in the same bed and took baths together as kids. They were in the same grade in school. They learned how to be tough in the mean streets of North Philly together.

Basketball was their life. They grew up playing on the playground courts, learning the toughness and resiliency it takes to survive in a rough and tumble city like 1980s Philly. And they won a city championship at Dobbins together.

So it was no question that little brother was there for Hank as doctors ran tests. He joined him in a stress test one day as they went for a run. Derrick knew something was wrong by the reaction of the doctor looking at the heart monitor.

He knew his brother was scared, too.

Derrick let himself into his brother’s condo in Palm Springs one day to find Hank sitting in the dark by himself. He was just thinking. Pondering something — “maybe the next life,” Derrick says. He believes his brother probably knew that returning to basketball — at the high intensity level he was playing — could kill him.

“Growing up in poverty, you tend to grow this rubber skin,” he said. “I think all in all, Hank was very scared. But he didn’t let his younger brother, me, know. Or he didn’t let my mom know how scared he was. But I can imagine he was terrified.”

Doctors prescribed the beta-blocker Inderal to control his heart rate. Hank sat out just two games. Then he was back to his old high-flying ways. He scored 48 points and ripped down 20 rebounds in a marquee matchup with future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and Louisiana State.

Within months, Hank was dead.

An autopsy after Hank’s death showed no traces of Inderal in his system. He had taken himself off of the drug because it made him feel sluggish while playing. Hank had called his doctor and had the dosage cut back, Derrick said.

“The word was that he knew he could possibly die if he continued to play,” Derrick said. “But my brother was the type of competitor that his ultimate goal was to make it to the NBA and get my mom out of the projects. And he did that. He did that, even if it cost him his life.”

Pulling good from bad

Derrick Gathers struggled for a long time with the loss of his brother. It sent him to a bad place. He recalls his mother and younger brother screaming inside the Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina Del Rey, California, after learning Hank had died.

“At that point, everything fell on my shoulders,” he said. “My oldest brother was in jail, Hank had just died, and my younger brother, my mom and Aunt Carol were all there. And everything just fell on my shoulders. I didn’t really have time to grieve.”

He said he and the family quickly took some bad advice and sued the university and doctors in search of relief. He said that was a mistake.

“I’ve learned over the years that when you have a tragedy of that magnitude, people take advantage of you,” he said. “And it’s sad to say, but it’s true.”

Derrick said lawyers and alumni took advantage of the family, encouraging them to sue, and he regrets taking that advice.

“We shouldn’t have sued the university. My brother loved his school,” he said. “He died for them, as a matter of fact.”

In the coming months and years, Derrick struggled with depression and alcoholism.

“There’s a lot of years I don’t recall,” he said. “The litigation went on for two years. And for two years I was basically trying to crawl into a bottle of alcohol and soak up my grief and my pain. With all that I tried to kill myself a couple of times just drinking.”

He knew he had to keep himself together for the sake of the family. And he did that by turning to his faith in God. By growing closer to God, he was able to put his life back together and he gave a much-needed apology to the school.

“I can honestly say that God doesn’t make mistakes. It was all meant to happen the way it happened,” he said. “I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now. I accept it now and respect the 22 years I had with my big brother. It’s just the way it is.”

Derrick’s son Jordan never met Hank. But he does his best to carry on his uncle’s name on the basketball court. Jordan grew up always getting questioned about his last name. When he finally became old enough, his family told him about his uncle’s legacy.

Ever since then, Jordan has always played the game in Hank’s honor. He enrolled at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, New York to play Division I basketball, just like his uncle. On the very first day of practice, Jordan had a scary moment of his own.

The intensity of a college practice was nothing compared to high school. At the end of a four-hour practice, he went to take his jersey off in the locker room and he started cramping. His teammates teased him because the little freshman was dehydrated on his first day. But it was not just a little cramp in his leg. It was a full body cramp. His muscles were going crazy, even after slugging down water and Gatorades.

None of that made a difference, so they took him to a local hospital. He said even the nurses did not know what was going on. After taking in two bags of intravenous fluids he was still dehydrated.

Then a doctor came in and told Jordan he had detected an irregular heartbeat. He was transferred to Buffalo General Hospital, where they did EKGs and a number of different heart tests. He was there for several days, but never got answers as to what caused the cramps or the irregular heartbeat.

His body returned to normal, and he was cleared to play. He went all freshman year without any issues and he has not experienced anything like that since.

“It was definitely scary,” he said. “Because your mind gets to wondering, ‘I might have the same thing my uncle had.’ And I know how my uncle took it, from talking to my family, and doctors and coach Westhead. He kind of knew the decision he was making. And that was tough for me thinking I was in the same position and that I have to make that same decision.”

The clearance to play brought a huge sigh of relief. He was able to return to the game he loves and return to carrying on his uncle’s legacy.

Coping in Fennville

Just days after Wes’ death, Fennville was still in shock. And a group of high school kids that had just lost their teammate and friend were faced with a difficult decision — whether to play in the state tournament.

The players left the decision to the Leonard family, and to them, it was a no-brainer. Wes would have wanted them to fight through adversity and go out and win.

On Monday, March 7, they opened play in the district tournament against Lawrence High School. With local and national media consumed by the heart wrenching story and an outpouring of support from the community, the Blackhawks’ district games had to be moved from Lawrence to DeVos Fieldhouse on the campus of Hope College in Holland.

Before the game, Bo Kimble addressed the team. He told them of Hank’s story, something he does regularly — just another way he carries on his teammate’s legacy.

“You’ll never really get over it,” he told them. “I don’t want to get over Hank Gathers. I can’t. Remember all those great things about Wes and be inspired by them.”

Jordan VanderBok said at the time he had never heard Hank’s story, but Kimble’s words have stuck with him to this day.

“He was there and he experienced losing his best friend, too,” VanderBok said. “He told us to keep the good memories we have of Wes, and I know I’ve done a good job of that. That’s something I always keep in mind.”

In front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people, the team got off to a slow start, overcome by emotion. The Hawks eventually came on strong in the second half and moved their record to 21–0.

Klingler, joined by several players, gave an emotional, yet uplifting press conference in front of media.

“They have shown me that you can rise up, and my gosh, the strength that they showed and the Leonards showed tonight, that just blows my mind,” he said.

After a brief moment of relief and consolation, the next day the players had to go bury their teammate. They got their final closure and knew they would have to take care of business again 24 hours later.

On Wednesday they came back out and blew Bangor High School out of the water. Vikings coach Rocky Johnson said he felt like it was six against five.

Many players felt they needed to win a district title for Wes. It was their only way to validate their efforts. They would again make the short trip north to DeVos, this time taking on the Covert Bulldogs, a fast, up-tempo team with a lot of energy.

And the Bulldogs wore the Blackhawks down over the first three quarters, holding a 10-point lead late in the game. And then the magic happened. Fennville rallied behind the attack of seniors Adam Siegel, Demarcus McGee and Reid Sexton to hold a slim lead late in the game.

Covert had one last possession to try and send the game to overtime. Multiple shots rattled around the rim and came back out. It was like Wes had put a lid on the bucket.

The Blackhawks won 51–48. The district trophy was presented to Wes’ little brother Mitchell.

Basketball was the one thing distracting the Blackhawks and their fans from their sadness. But reality quickly set in. Fennville met up with undefeated Schoolcraft in the regional semifinals. Their run was bound to come to an end sooner or later. And this was the game where it would happen.

A local radio announcer described the Eagles’ shooting performance as “shooting in your driveway.” Schoolcraft put a hurt on Fennville, winning 86–62. Just 10 days after losing their teammate, the Blackhawks lost their first and only game of the season.

As Schoolcraft went on a run of joy and excitement to win the Class C state championship, Fennville continued to deal with grief and sorrow over the next several months. But like the Gathers family, the Leonards turned their grief into good. Wes’ mother Jocelyn formed the Wes Leonard Heart Team in his honor.

The night Wes died, people at first thought he had just fainted from heat exhaustion. But when they realized he was not breathing, a bystander ran down the hallway to get the school’s automated external defibrillator. An AED is a device that delivers an electric shock to a person suffering a cardiac arrest, returning the heart back to a normal rhythm. Using one during a cardiac arrest doubles the victim’s chances of surviving.

But when they went to turn it on, the battery was dead.

The Heart Team holds fundraisers to purchase and donate AEDs to local schools and organizations so no one has to experience what the Leonards and the Fennville community went through. The foundation also provides cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification, which also doubles the chances of survival during a cardiac arrest.

AEDs matter

12-year-old Joel Tsetse of Fishers, Indiana, knows firsthand that AEDs matter.

He collapsed while playing in a youth basketball game at Fishers High School in February 2014.

Fishers Police Sgt. Troy Fettinger just so happened to be in attendance to watch his own son on the opposing team. Running down the court, Tsetse “just melted to the floor,” Fettinger said. He knew something was wrong and he had to act quickly.

After discovering that he was not breathing, Fettinger ran to his squad car parked in front of the school to get his AED. He came back into the gym and followed the simple instructions given by the machine. Just like that, he had saved Tstese’s life.

Fettinger has formed a friendship with the Tsetses. They eat dinner together a couple times a month and stay in frequent touch.

Joel will forever be grateful for Fettinger’s swift action that cold Saturday afternoon. But Fettinger has gotten something out of it too. He has become more aware of his own heart health. He lost 20 pounds in 2016 and says he got the inspiration to do so by seeing Joel lead a healthier lifestyle.

Fast Action

On Dec. 2, 2017, history nearly repeated itself.

But the South Carolina State men’s basketball team was prepared.

Senior guard Ty Solomon collapsed on the S.C. State bench during the first half of a game at North Carolina State. His heart stopped beating, and the training staff quickly jumped in. Tyler Long, the team trainer, administered CPR, and EMTs used an AED to restart his heart.

Solomon was rushed to a local hospital and had an emergency surgery, though he and his family have not revealed publicly what type of surgery it was, other than to say, “the surgery allows his heart to beat regularly and diminishes the chance of a recurring incident,” according to a story in the Raleigh News & Observer.

Per the News & Observer, Solomon has re-enrolled in classes at S.C. State and is expected to graduate in May 2019. He looks at his scar in the mirror every day as a reminder “to live the approaching day to the fullest, to be thankful for every waking moment.”

Moving forward

The Tsetses never did get a definitive answer as to what caused Joel’s sudden cardiac arrest, but he has been healthy since and continues to play basketball and multiple other sports. Similarly to Jordan Gathers, he has been completely healthy since the incident and continues to play basketball.

As for Jordan Gathers, he ended up transferring to Butler University for his final season of NCAA eligibility. Gathers became a spark off the bench for the Bulldogs and helped them to an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Fennville is now seven years removed from Wes’ death. The healing process continues every day. There are good days. There are bad days.

Fennville retired Leonard’s basketball and football jersey numbers, displayed on the wall next to Blackhawk basketball legend Richie Jordan’s number (Photo by Kyle Beery)

The community can still get a piece of Wes’ legacy in Morehead Gymnasium. A banner with his retired football and basketball jerseys hangs next to that of Fennville basketball legend Richie Jordan.

Jordan was a high school All-American in football and basketball. He was all-state four years on the court and three years on the field. Jordan still holds the state record for most points in a regional title game — He scored 60 in the final game of his career, against Bridgman in 1965.

The Blackhawks have had their ups and downs on the court in the years since Wes’ death.

Wes’ mother, Jocelyn, has been active in trying to enact legislature to prevent tragedies like that of her son. At the beginning of the 2017–18 school year, a bill she pushed hard for, for more than two years — Public Act 388 of 2016 — went into effect, adding AED and CPR training to high school health curriculums in Michigan.

But the biggest way she and the Heart Team honor Wes is the annual Never Forgotten Game.

Every year since his death the team has hosted a fundraiser game with its rival, Saugatuck High School. Saugatuck is a small resort town about eight miles away, right on Lake Michigan. The two schools have always had a bitter rivalry.

It dates back decades with many a game decided by a buzzer beater, or a last second touchdown. The hatred has even spilled over throughout the years with a couple in-game tussles and some alleged vandalism.

Wes led the Blackhawks to a dominant 63–26 win over the Indians during the 2010 football season. He never lost to Saugatuck in varsity basketball. It is safe to say he had the Indians’ number.

But now the rivalry has become a bit more of a friendly one. Once a winter the two towns come together to raise money for AEDs. Silent auctions and 50/50 raffles have given away Heart Team gear, gift certificates to local restaurants in the two towns, and countless other prizes. Fans get a new “Never Forgotten” t-shirt each year. These prizes and gifts all offer consolation to fans still looking for a little joy to get them through the cold winters. Even for the Saugatuck faithful.

The Blackhawks returned to DeVos Fieldhouse on Hope’s campus for the 2017 Never Forgotten Game (Photo by Kyle Beery)

While the first six editions of the Never Forgotten Game were held in Fennville, in 2017 they moved the game to DeVos Fieldhouse at Hope, the very site of the Blackhawks’ resilient three-game rollercoaster run to the district title.

The 2018 Never Forgotten Game raised enough money to purchase and donate nine AEDs. They have donated more than 200 AEDs since 2011 and have successfully trained hundreds of people how to use them, as well as administer CPR.

Fennville held off its rivals from SHS for a 48–46 win. As the clock expired and fans began filing for the exits, chants of “Wes-ley Leon-ard!” from both schools’ student sections echoed throughout DeVos Fieldhouse as a solemn reminder that while the vast majority of those students never had an opportunity to meet Wes, they will never forget him and always treasure his legacy of helping others.

If nothing else, the Never Forgotten games bring together two communities that have found a little compassion through the loss of a young athlete. But there is still a sense of disdain on the court. The games get fierce. There is still jeering back and forth between the student sections. It still feels like a Saugatuck-Fennville game.

Just the way Wes would like it.