Candlelight vigil for Fort Worth-area football player who drowned
It's quite possible 43-year-old Beverly Dennis of Keller would've been in the stands in Tokyo on July 24, 2020, when the next Olympic Games take place, watching with her husband and daughter the extravagant opening ceremony and pyrotechnics shooting into the sky under the glow of a brilliant moon and stadium lights.
They might have been cheering her son, 20-year-old Chase Dennis, a track and field star who prepped at Timber Creek High School, whenever he took the field in Tokyo. Or when "Dude," as she liked to call him, took the field.
"It was talk of Olympics 2020 on Dude," Beverly Dennis said with excitement. "When he graduated from high school, 52 colleges were offering him rides. I still have the letters."
But her excitement and enthusiasm would soon give way to a somber tone. Sometimes her words became slurred — her voice overcome with grief, sadness and ultimately tears.
Chase lost his life in a swimming accident on May 12 in Big Hill Lake outside Coffeyville, Kansas, where he attended Coffeyville Community College the past two years.
A star athlete
Before arriving at CCC, Chase had set Timber Creek track and field records in the discus and shot put.
He also was a member of the football team, playing every position along the defensive line at some point, according to Kevin Golden, Timber Creek's head football coach.
"He was a lively kid. Just a sweet kid. A very good football player, but he was exceptional at track and field," Golden said. "He was going to go places with track."
Golden said Chase was a junior when he set the discus and shot put records. He made it to the Texas High School Powerlifting Association regional and state finals in 2015. He finished second in the regional with a total of 1,470 pounds and 12th in the state finals..
From that point, scholarship offers for track and field came pouring in from schools like Ole Miss, Alabama, the University of Houston and Texas State University, to name a few, according to his mother.
"They were all offering him a full ride," Beverly Dennis said.
But a learning disability her son had struggled with and a lingering injury would have to be overcome to reach his dream of going further in athletics.
Academic & weight struggles
In ninth grade, Chase had to take a remedial math course instead of algebra, geometry or statistics, classes required to meet the NCAA eligibility requirements to receive a scholarship. Classes taught below grade level, at a slower pace or with less rigor or depth are often titled basic, essential, fundamental or foundational, according to NCAA.org.
"When we found out [the requirements] at the end of 11th grade, he didn't have time," said Beverly Dennis. "To get a scholarship, you can't take a core class in summer school. That was in ninth and 10th grade he had those classes, so he couldn't fit that into his schedule the following year."
To compound the problem, during his senior year, when football season ended, he began experiencing back pain.
His mother said she took him to their family doctor, where tests revealed he had a bulging disc. She said the physician told them that 80 percent of the tissue had diminished around one of the discs along his spinal cord.
"They were like, 'You need surgery.' I was like, 'Chase, what do you want to do?'" Beverly Dennis said. "He was like, 'I don't want to have surgery because then I won't get my scholarship.' I'm like, 'Dude, you have to do this. This is your life and your health.'"
But during the same conversation, the doctor offered a different solution.
The physician told him that continuing football was not a likely option but that if he dropped some weight, there was no reason he couldn't continue competing in track and field.
"He said, 'If you're not playing football, why are you carrying football weight?'" Beverly Dennis said. "He told him something like 20 pounds, but Chase took it to heart and changed his whole physique. He still had pain, but it wasn't as bad with less weight."
Weight loss restores his confidence
Chase ended up losing 50 pounds, becoming leaner, and never thought about having surgery again.
That was classic Chase, according to Lonnie Judd, discus and shot put coach at Timber Creek. He was fearless and always willing to do the work, Judd said.
"He's one of those guys where he's the first one there and then they have to run him off to get him to go home," Judd said. "He's always, 'Coach Judd, let me get three more throws. Let me get two more throws, Coach Judd.' I'm saying, 'It's getting dark, Chase. We've gotta go.' He was that kind of kid. He just loved it so much."
He had a few offers from smaller schools, including Texas A&M Commerce, but he chose to go to Coffeyville Community College, where he was offered a full scholarship.
Getting closer to his Olympic dreams
Judd said Chase kept in touch with him during his time at CCC as he flourished in academics and athletics. Once again, scholarships came flooding in from top-ranked universities across the country. A month before his death, the University of Houston brought him in for a campus visit and even had Olympian and nine-time gold medal winner Carl Lewis escort him during his visit.
"He was excited about all the trips. They just opened up their arms to him. With the numbers he was putting up in track, they all really wanted him," Judd said. "That's why we were so proud of him getting through junior college and doing extremely well. He was really excited about getting to the next level."
After that campus visit to Houston, along with a number of others, a week before his death, he set his two personal best records in the discus and shot put at the 2018 Region VI Outdoor Track & Field Championships. His discus throw was 52.48 meters (about 172 feet) and his shot put was 41-04.25 feet.
To put his discus number in perspective, Juergen Schult set the world record for the longest discus throw in East Germany in 1986 at 74.08 meters, according to The Washington Post. The Olympic record for the longest men's discus throw was set in 2004 by Virgilijus Alekna of Lithuania, at 69.89 meters.
With more time and reps, reaching those goals were possible and the sky was the limit for Chase, according to Judd.
"He had an unbelievable regional meet. In college he's already throwing the discus almost 175 feet (53 meters). You get up there another 10 feet or so on that, and you've got a legit chance," said Judd. "Coach [Robert] Wood at Coffeyville texted me and said Chase was the best athlete he ever had."
The next Monday, May 7, Chase signed a letter of intent with Northwestern State University in Louisiana. His graduation from CCC came the following Saturday, May 12.
"He had an amazing week," his mother said. "School was over; he was only still there because of the nationals the next week."
A dream lost
On the afternoon of May 12, Chase texted his mom and told her he was going swimming with his track and field teammates at Big Hill Lake, right outside Coffeyville, to celebrate graduation.
"The lake is nothing. He goes to Grapevine Lake all the time. He swims in community pools. The people who have pools in their homes in the neighborhood," Beverly Dennis said. "He's a swimmer. I wasn't bothered by that whatsoever."
Around 2:52 p.m., things would take a tragic turn.
Labette County Sheriff Darren Eichinger said dispatchers got a call about a missing swimmer around that time.
"Him and his friend were swimming near the area where the beach area divides from the lake near a set of buoys," said Eichinger. "As they were swimming back, [a female friend] got ahead of him and heard him begin yelling for help."
Eichinger said Chase's friend tried to help pull him from the water but couldn't. He said she swam back to shore and called for help. Beverly Dennis said around that time she got a phone call and expected it to be Chase.
"I'm like, 'Hey, baby, what's going on?' and they said, 'No, no, no, ma'am,'" she said. "I said, 'What's wrong. Where's Chase? Is he OK?' They said, 'He's in the water and they couldn't get him. She tried to help him but he was too heavy and they both were going down so he pushed her away.'"
Beverly said she rushed to get her husband. While she held the phone, she and her husband held hands and began to pray with Chase's friend over the phone.
"She prayed with us and then she put the sheriff on the phone," Beverly said.
A little more than a half-hour later, at 3:35 p.m., divers found Chase and pulled him from the water. They attempted CPR to revive him, but it failed, according to Eichinger.
Beverly wept retelling the story, but she tried to find a silver lining in her son's death.
"For him to die the same way he lived, helping others," she said, her voice tailing off. "He let her go. That just says so much to how my baby was."
This story includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.