The pews were half-full, and filling quickly, as I walked the aisle alongside my colleague. I only noticed to keep my eyes off the coffin at the front of the pulpit.
As we got closer, though, I felt my knees weakening, my breaths shortening, and my heart palpating excessively. As we gazed at the body of a once active, vibrant, young athlete—Chase Dennis—two years removed from Timber Creek High Schoolin Keller, my fellow coach turned and embraced me, and quietly, but very hauntingly said, “This isn’t right. It shouldn’t be like this.” I agreed and we embraced one another, part consoling and part holding on to keep our knees from buckling.
On May 12, 2018, Chase, 20, went swimming at Big Hill Lake near Coffeyville, Kansas to celebrate the completion of his time at Coffeyville Community College. One of his teammates nearby in the water heard his cries for help, then turned to assist him. But in a selfless act, Chase let go of her to avoid pulling her down with him. He drowned.
At his wake, family, friends, teammates, and coaches gathered to tell and hear multiple stories like that—about Chase’s selflessness. It was beautiful and hard.
As everyone dismissed to the parking lot, I spotted another ex-athlete, a former teammate of Chase. I asked him if he was doing okay. He sternly replied, “No.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It just isn’t fair. I don’t understand,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “I just don’t get it. I’m mad.” I embraced him and he wept on my shoulder underneath a corner streetlight.
It wasn’t until I got home and couldn’t sleep, recounting the memories of a young man I was privileged to coach, that I pondered the larger picture: the unifying power of sports.
If it wasn’t for sports, I’m not sure I would have been able to embrace my co-workers and former athletes the way I did. The opportunities sports afforded for people to come together in celebration around a great athlete, around a loss everyone wishes they could reverse, is a gift Chase left all of us who knew him. Chase’s character, coupled with his desire to compete in football and track and field, attracted people of all sorts.
And primarily because of sports Chase was able to fashion various relationships. He had friends that were different races, genders, and religions. From white middle-aged women, to Hispanic young ladies, to young Muslim men, he impacted many different lives as much as they impacted his. Much of it was because of his ability to steward the athletic gifts he was blessed with.
His candlelight vigil, wake, and funeral was a testament to this. The assemblage of individuals at the predominately African American Sunset Baptist Church was a visible reminder of how sports can be a unifying force for good. It reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream as I surveyed the iridescent gathering of young and old; black, white, and brown; and people across income classes and the political spectrum. All connected in peace to pay respects to a friend, a brother, a son, an athlete.
Whether cheering, coaching, or supporting, we will continue gathering around competitors like Chase. We’ll congregate at stadiums and huddle around TV’s watching Super Bowls, NBA and Stanley Cup Finals, and World Series with people we love and neighbors we hardly know.
We’ll observe athletes and teams that will dominate and shake our heads in disappointment when the home team struggles. For a few hours at a time, we’ll share ranges of emotions that connect the human experience in a unique way. But no matter the amount of accolades, wins, or losses, we should cherish most the moments: the moments we get to observe success; the moments we’re blessed as coaches to teach techniques as well as character; the moments we get to instill lessons about losing with dignity and winning with humility; the moments we get to laugh and weep together; and the moments we’re blessed to learn more about the value of life.
In the end, the length of time we get to spend on these occasions won’t matter as much as the quality of the moments we get to share. In the scope of eternity, we don’t have much time with each other. We didn’t have much time with Chase. But the quality of the moments we were blessed to observe, learn from, laugh with, coach and teach him is what we will remember most. In his life and in his death, it’s the moments he was able to bring people together—loving, forgiving, supporting, and cheering—that matter most.
Timothy Thomas is a coach at Timber Creek High School in Keller.