Baldwin coping with tragic loss
Baldwin City The festive mood normally present when the doors swing open at 3:15 p.m. and students file out of the building after a day of classes at Baldwin High was replaced by long faces and quiet voices on a dreary Friday afternoon.
Many at the school were in mourning for Wes Leonard, the high school basketball player from Fennville, Mich., who collapsed on the basketball court seconds after hitting a game-winning layup for his high school’s undefeated team Thursday night. Leonard was pronounced dead at the hospital two hours after hitting the shot.
The chief medical examiner for Ottawa County in western Michigan filed the cause of death as cardiac arrest brought on by dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that enlarges and weakens heart muscles and can go undetected.
Leonard, 16, had spent the first 11 years of his life in Baldwin. The family moved to Michigan when he was in the sixth grade.
Most of the country came to know of Leonard’s athletic ability, kind soul and tragic death by watching ESPN SportsCenter reports throughout the day Friday. The sadness hit closer to home, took deeper root, in Baldwin City.
The Leonards and Gaylords of Baldwin remained close after the Leonards moved. They took family vacations together, as recently as two years ago at Tabletop Lake in Southwestern, Mo.
“I thought I’d see Wesley on ESPN some day, but not for this,” said Baldwin High sophomore Caleb Gaylord, a member of the school’s varsity basketball team. “I thought I’d see him on ESPN for football or basketball.”
Gaylord heard the news from his mother, Holly Gaylord, who had received a phone call Friday morning from a family friend.
Caleb said he intended to go to school Friday but was overcome with emotion and decided to stay home.
“We were getting ready to walk out the door and it just hits you and you have to sit down,” Caleb said. “You just have to sit down and cry. There’s nothing else you can do.”
Added his mother, Holly: “Cry and pray for them, pray for their comfort.”
After the initial shock and sadness had taken root, many began swapping stories about the athletic prowess he demonstrated in youth football, basketball and baseball leagues.
“I remember his home runs,” Caleb Gaylord said. “Oh, he could hit them. I mean, into parking lots. And he knew how to put a smile on your face.”
Once, when the boys played on the Baldwin All-Stars coach-pitch baseball team, the players competed in a home run derby in Wellsville, July 17-19, 2003. A check of the Baldwin City Signal archives shows Leonard won the derby with nine home runs. Teammate Dayton Valentine, now a sophomore who competed on the varsity football and basketball teams this season, placed second with three home runs.
Holly Gaylord introduced a smile to her tear-filled face at the recollection of the home run derby.
“My husband (Scott) was pitching to him and he hit a line drive so hard at my husband, my husband fell and broke his ribs,” Holly said.
Valentine, the second-place finisher in the derby, learned of his friend’s tragic death Friday morning from watching ESPN and blurted out, “No way!” at the television.
“Our fathers were friends before we were born,” said Valentine, who made his father, Jeff Valentine, proud days before his death from cancer by helping Baldwin High to a playoff victory on the football field four months ago. “I remember Wes winning that home run derby. He was always a really good athlete.”
Knowing how close the Gaylords are to the Leonards, Dayton’s mother, Marilee Valentine, brought pizza Friday to the Gaylords.
“She was a real comfort,” Holly Gaylord said. “That’s the kind of community we have. We all pull together. We still feel like the Leonards are part of our community, even though they’re not.”
For example, Holly said, Jocelyn Leonard came to town during the summer to sing at an Arnold family wedding.
Watching the coverage of Wes Leonard’s death on ESPN, Holly said, “felt like a dream.”
Added Caleb: “It just doesn’t click.”
Detective John Hanson with the Lawrence Police Department coached Leonard when he played for the fourth-and-fifth grade Baldwin Bulldogs football team.
“He was a great kid from a great family,” Hanson said. “He was one of those kids, the way he handled himself playing football, you knew he would excel at some sport.”
Hanson remembered Leonard, a fullback and middle linebacker for the Bulldogs, needing to shift from a blocker to the featured running back late in the annual Toy Bowl championship game in 2004.
“If I remember right, he scored the winning touchdown,” Hanson said.
Leonard scored the winning touchdown with four minutes left in a 13-12 victory against the Lawrence Cougars, according to a Baldwin City Signal report on the game.
Hanson said the family moved early in Wes’ sixth-grade year and Hanson remembered bringing their Baldwin Bulldogs jerseys to Wes and his younger brother Mitchell before the family moved.
“The Leonards just kind of light up a room whenever you’re near them,” Holly Gaylord said. “Anybody would agree with me about that. Gary just called me two weeks ago and wanted to know what we were doing for spring break. Now we’re going to his son’s funeral.”
Leonard died one day before the 21st anniversary of Loyola Marymount University basketball star Hank Gathers collapsing on the court and dying, triggered by his heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.