The Fennville Blackhawks‘ team motto is “Never Forgotten.”
A two-word tribute to a 16-year-old athlete in the small western Michigan town of Fennville. Wes Leonard hit a game-winning shot in overtime to end a perfect season — only to collapse moments later on the basketball court and die from sudden cardiac arrest due to dilated cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart.
His story of triumph turned tragedy didn’t end on March 3, when an exuberant home crowd turned silent as he was carted from the court. It didn’t end at Wes’s funeral days later, which drew hundreds of mourners. Nor did it end a week later, when Fennville High School’s playoffs run ended short of the state finals.
Saving future lives
Wes’s life and sudden death prompted his family and loved ones to start the Wes Leonard Heart Team, a foundation committed to placing an automated electronic defibrillator (AED) in every public and private school in Michigan. The hope is the devices could save the lives of those who collapse with heart failure and get them to a medical facility.
“For sure, an AED would’ve saved his life,” Jocelyn Leonard said in an interview shortly after her son’s death. “We all know his heart was damaged, but he could’ve lived with that heart a little longer while we figured out what to do with it.”
According to an ABC report, dilated cardiomyopathy — an inherited condition for 30 percent of those afflicted — has been seen in only 2.3 percent of athlete deaths. Among young athletes, that number seems to drop to 0.5 percent. Leonard had been sick with the flu a week earlier, and a cardiology expert said illnesses like that could inflame a susceptible heart.
So far, the foundation has raised money through donations, T-shirt sales, and fundraisers to give 13 schools AED devices, which they say should be on hand in case other young athletes collapse from heart-related issues. The Heart Team also raises awareness of the importance of AEDs and even cardiology screening in schools, to identify heart disease and to prevent future tragedies.
On December 7, Fennville High School began its season with a special pregame tribute to Wes Leonard. Fennville coach Ryan Klingler gave a brief, emotional tribute: “We carry on with Wes in our hearts,” he said, holding back tears.
Wes Leonard is scheduled to be inducted into the Fennville High School Hall of Fame in February. But his legacy is apparent not just in the record books of Fennville sports, but also in other schools. The Heart Team efforts could prevent similar tragedies and give student athletes another shot in life.
Photo: Dennis R.J. Geppert/AP
Ron Recinto is the Detroit editor for Yahoo! Local. Prior to joining Yahoo!, Ron was a print journalist and an online editor for more than 15 years at publications including the Detroit Free Press, the Charlotte Observer, and Red Herring magazine.