Larry Thompson has seemingly seen it all during his lifetime as a resident of Lakeville. He has been coaching high school football in town since 1979, resulting in lots of highs and a few very low lows.
These past few days have been hard for everyone in Lakeville. After school last Friday, two male students at Lakeville South were killed in a single-vehicle accident, a third student was severely injured, and a fourth suffered minor injuries.
The funeral for Johnny Price, 18, was held Tuesday. The funeral for Jake Flynn, 17, will be held Thursday and Thompson will speak during the service. He knows it will be difficult, but these are days filled with difficulties.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Thompson told me. “The toughest thing I have to do is go in the equipment room, get a kid’s game jersey and take it to his mom and dad.”
He did that with Jake’s jersey. All four of the boys played football for Thompson; Price gave up football this year to concentrate on baseball. Alex Hughes remains hospitalized and Mason Kohlbeck has returned to school.
Thompson graduated from Lakeville High School in 1970 and returned to coach and teach after graduating from Augsburg College. In 1979 he was named Lakeville’s head football coach at age 26. He held that job for 26 years; when Lakeville South opened in 2005 (and Lakeville High became Lakeville North), Thompson moved to the new school.
Jake Flynn had recently been named a South football captain for the 2016 season. Thompson last saw him during a 6:15 a.m. weightlifting session Friday.
“I walked in and he came up and gave me a big hug with a big smile on his face,” Thompson recalled. “He said, ‘How are you doing today, coach!’ I’m retired (from teaching) so I usually don’t get up until 8, so I said, ‘Jake, I’m a little sleepy.’ He laughed and said, ‘It’s good for you to get out of bed.’
“I’ll be speaking at his funeral and I might tell this story: He was at wide receiver and he threw one of the lamest blocks I’ve ever seen. I’m ready to chew him out when he got to the sideline. But he said, ‘Coach, I know. That was one of the worst things you’ve ever seen.’ He said, ‘I’ll do better next time.’
“I love those kids. It’s a tough deal.”
Ten years after Lakeville was split into two high schools, the North Panthers and South Cougars are spirited rivals. But when one school is hurting, the other steps up to help. Two years ago, on the same date (December 4) that the South students were killed, a female student at North died in a car accident.
“Lakeville South did an amazing job supporting us two years ago and I felt like we did the same in this last situation,” North boys basketball coach John Oxton said. “In tragedy, great things happen. People pull together. I’m very proud of our community.”
The boys basketball teams from Lakeville South and Lakeville North met Tuesday night in a South Suburban Conference game at North. The color blue had been chosen as a sign of solidarity; the players from both teams wore blue t-shirts over their jerseys, the coaches wore blue t-shirts and most of the people who packed the stands wore blue.
South students displayed a large handmade sign that read, “We Love Our Angels.” The sign carried the initials JP and JF for Price and Flynn. Before tipoff, the teams gathered in a large circle on the court and held hands for a moment of silence.
“We talked before practice yesterday,” South coach Nick Gruhlke said after the game. “We got everybody’s feelings on things and we told them we’re going to coach you up like nothing happened and hopefully we can return to normalcy; which we know isn’t going to happen.”
Oxton said, “It’s so difficult, especially for young people. Life is going to go on and that is really hard. It doesn’t mean we have to forget or anything like that. We’re going to honor these kids and not forget them. But it’s also important, too, that we do move on. We can honor them by competing and doing our best. I felt like both teams did that tonight. It’s a super tough loss for them and an exciting win for us, but I think Lakeville as a community won tonight.”
After learning of the accident on Friday, Thompson went to South to be with his football players, other students, staff and parents. He was told that Mason Kohlbeck, who had been taken to Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis, had asked about seeing his coach. Thompson drove there immediately and saw both Kohlbeck and Hughes.
“Mason wasn’t really hurt but he was distraught,” Thompson said. “I talked to him and sat him down. I said, ‘Mason, you have to listen to me. Mason, you can’t change one thing that happened today. All you can do in life is do the best you can in school, be the best person you can be, be the best husband and father you can be so Jake and Johnny can look down and say nice job, Mason.’
“I went up to the ICU to see Alex. I said, ‘Alex, you’ve got to get better. We need you around school, we miss you. You need to fight and get better. I said, ‘I love you’ and he opened his eyes and said, ‘Thanks coach. I love you.’
“I guess sometimes that puts things in perspective on why I do this. I’m their boss and everything but I’m their friend, too.”
To no one’s surprise, the crowd was somewhat subdued during most of Tuesday’s basketball game. South jumped to an early lead, held it and led by five points with 61 seconds remaining in the second half. The North fans roared when Calven Pesola made a three-point shot to tie it 77-77 with 35 seconds to go, and the winning point in a 78-77 North victory came on a free throw by Ethan Igbanugo with five seconds left.
At the final horn, North students stormed the court. Players, coaches and students from both schools shook hands and embraced as an emotional evening came to a close.
Postscript: The first song performed by the Lakeville North pep band was very fitting on a night when young men, two gone and two healing, were honored. The tune was a well-known song by Guns N’ Roses: “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 334
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 6,087 + 52 + 9 …
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn