As you watch KSTC-Channel 45's coverage of the Prep Bowl football games Friday, please try to be watching between the Class 2A game and the Class 5A game. Sometime in the 6:20 to 6:45 p.m. time frame -- it's hard to predict the time because games can run long or short -- a special story will air.
It's a story that appears in the printed state tournament program, and it's a story that appeared in its original form here on John's Journal in early September. It concerns a tragic death and how two schools and communities came together to honor the young person whose life was lost and to help in the healing process.
A few weeks ago, KSTC sports producer Dennis Silva asked me if there was a great story out there that I could help shape into a video story to air during the Prep Bowl. This story was the easy choice, and KSTC videographer Brian Stemmler and I spent a day conducting interviews at Southland High School and Wabasha-Kellogg High School, as well as attending a football game in Wabasha.
Brian did a masterful job of editing the piece and guiding me -- a novice in TV storytelling -- through the process. It's a story that will touch your heart.
Here is the original printed story, which appeared here on Sept. 6...
Remembering A Teammate, An Opponent And What Sportsmanship Means
WABASHA – Across Minnesota last Friday, 104 high school football games were played. Every one of those games was important, but what took place prior to one specific game was very, very special.
It was a scene unlike anything I have witnessed in several decades of writing about sports of all kinds, from the professional ranks to the youth level. I doubt I will ever see anything like it again. The story, which began a year ago with a terrible tragedy, continued Friday evening with memories, tears and special tributes.
Cole Younker was 16 years old when he was killed in a car accident on Sept. 10 last year. He was a passenger in a car that collided with a semi-trailer on Highway 61 in Wabasha. Cole was a three-sport athlete at Wabasha-Kellogg High School.
On Friday, Southland High School’s football team played at Wabasha-Kellogg in the first game of the season for both teams. As Southland coach Shawn Kennedy told me, “We wanted to do something in honor of and in memory of the young man who was killed. We wanted to do something to really show true sportsmanship.”
It was a simple act, really, involving the planting of a tree and releasing of balloons. But simple acts can have the greatest impact.
The planning began when Southland athletic director Bill Feuchtenberger phoned Wabasha-Kellogg athletic director/football coach Nick Richmond. “He said Southland wanted to do something when the time was right,” Richmond said. “We decided we were going to do a tree and he said, ‘Whatever it takes, just send us a bill and we’ll do it.’ ”
Cole’s mother, Bonnie Younker, was asked to select a tree and she picked out a beauty. It’s a red maple, which will someday stand 35 to 40 foot tall. It was paid for by Southland. Between warm-ups and the start of Friday’s game, both teams lined up on either side of the planting site, which is in a corner of the football/track complex. Four captains from each squad placed the tree in a hole (that had been dug by Richmond a day earlier) and then used shovels to fill in the dirt around the trunk.
Bonnie stood with the Wabasha-Kellogg Falcons and cried while the tree in memory of Cole was planted. When the job was done, she hugged all eight captains.
It was quite a sight: young boys in football uniforms (minus helmets) taking their time and working together to get that tree started on its new life. A few fans gathered around to watch. Some of them cried and others sniffed back the tears.
“I’m very fortunate, along with the rest of the coaching staff, in that we get to play in a conference, the Three Rivers North and South, in which all of us coaches get along very well,” Kennedy had told me earlier. “When something like this happens, I think it affects everybody. He was a son, a sibling and it was a devastating thing. Why not try and do something in his honor, to really show that it’s only a game and to really show true sportsmanship? We always talk about being a class act at Southland, and Nick does the same thing over here, and that’s what it’s all about.”
On the right shoulder of each Falcons jersey this season are two small black numbers: 32. That was Cole’s number. Stickers with his number were affixed to their helmets. Some of the players had written Cole’s initials, CJR, on black anti-glare patches they wore under their eyes. Some have tattoos dedicated to Cole.
On Thursday, Richmond sat down to watch the film from last year’s game between Wabasha-Kellogg and Southland. He admitted that it was hard to watch as Cole made tackles, and he didn’t let the players watch the video.
“The one-year anniversary is coming up and the kids are still feeling it,” he said.
As a recording of the national anthem was played, the teams stood in lines at each end of the field. Bonnie Younker and several other women then brought out bundles of balloons and handed one to each Falcon. The players had written notes to Cole, which had been placed inside the balloons. As the balloons were released into the warm Minnesota sky, they floated up and began taking a southwesterly tack toward the nearby Mississippi River.
“I get goosebumps when I say this, but this is why we do this,” said Kennedy. “I’m starting my 27th year of coaching. And let me tell you something, I think this is pretty special to be able to be a part of this and help do something for Wabasha and for the family.
“I lost my father when he went in for gall bladder surgery and never came home. It just brings back those kinds of feelings for me personally. I am very blessed, because 55 of these kids drove six and a half hours in a snowstorm to be at my dad’s wake service. That’s pretty special. It’s only a game, and this puts it in perspective that there are more important things.”
The game ended with Southland winning 48-0. But that’s not the memory that will remain. The sight of a grieving mother, of young boys doing something larger than themselves and their game, of all those balloons sailing away ... all of it unforgettable.
“In a weird way, I expected a call from them just because I know coach Kennedy,” Richmond said. “From the first time I met him, he was a class act. I love the guy. So I knew it was coming. How do you show sportsmanship better than what they’re doing?”
As the season opener neared, some of the Falcons wrote notes to Cole that were separate from the notes that sailed away with the balloons. One of them read:
“Hey buddy, we miss you. It’s not the same here any more. We’re playing for you, OK? Thanks for everything you’ve ever done to and for me. Miss you.”