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Published March 08, 2011, 03:10 PM

Hundreds Attend Funeral for Fallen Michigan Player

Hundreds of mourners, many wearing orange ribbons, filled a western Michigan church Tuesday for the funeral of a 16-year-old star athlete who collapsed and died after scoring a winning basket for his high school team.

By: Tim Martin, Associated Press

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) — Hundreds of mourners, many wearing orange ribbons, filled a western Michigan church Tuesday for the funeral of a 16-year-old star athlete who collapsed and died after scoring a winning basket for his high school team.

The funeral for Wes Leonard was held less than a day after his Fennville High teammates shed their grief for a few hours and won the first game of the state basketball playoffs in front of 3,500 fans.

Leonard died of an enlarged heart last Thursday, moments after his shot gave the undefeated Blackhawks another victory.

At Christ Memorial Church, the Rev. Gary Peterson opened the service with a prayer and recalled Leonard's love for sports, the outdoors and his Christian faith. Orange is a school color, and orange flowers and ribbons were everywhere.

"Wes loved life and the world around him," Peterson said during the service. "I know now that he loves heaven because that's where he's at."

After the service, people lined the sidewalk outside the church and released orange and black balloons into the clear blue sky as pallbearers placed Wes Leonard's casket into a hearse for a private burial.

Since last week, Peterson, pastor of Fennville United Methodist Church, said many teenagers have told him about Leonard's love for Jesus.

"Wes walked the talk. ... He was a man of action. He stood behind those words," Peterson said.

Jim Leonard said his nephew was "larger than life."

"I never used or understood that cliche until the last four days," the uncle said. Earlier, he said the family has been overwhelmed by the support it's received.

Other schools shared Fennville's grief. A bus carrying more than 70 students from the Gobles and Bloomingdale districts arrived at the funeral. Classes were canceled in the Fennville district.

"We just didn't want anyone to feel conflicted about whether they should be at school or here," Superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer said of the funeral. "We just felt it was important to be able to show our caring and concern for the family."

Fennville is a town of about 1,400, but the school district covers a broader area in southwest Michigan near Lake Michigan.

Leonard's absence overshadowed the Monday night game, which was moved to Hope College in Holland to accommodate a larger crowd. After the final buzzer sounded, his teammates hugged and cried.

"I think he was watching down on us," Fennville coach Ryan Klingler said after the 65-54 win over Lawrence. "This is a game he'd have liked."

In tribute to Leonard, Fennville sent just four players onto the court before the opening tip. The fifth player took the court after a dramatic pause to wild cheering from the crowd.

Some players flashed Leonard's jersey number, "35" — holding up three fingers on one hand and five on the other — at moments before and during the game. Fans held up signs with such phrases as "We love Wes" or had his number painted on their faces in the team's colors, black and orange.

During pregame warm-ups, players from both teams wore black T-shirts with Leonard's name and number on the back and the phrase "Never Forgotten" on the front. Players also wore black wristbands with Leonard's initials on them.

The first standing ovation came as Fennville players stoically walked onto the court for pregame warm-ups, joined by Leonard's younger brother, Mitchell. The crowd again came to its feet and clapped as more members of the Leonard family, including his parents, entered DeVos Fieldhouse.

A moment of silence was held for Leonard, who also was the quarterback on the school's football team.

Monday's game was the first for Fennville since Thursday, when Leonard made the game-winning basket in overtime on his home court against Bridgman to cap an undefeated regular season at 20-0. Teams shook hands after the game and Leonard was lifted off the floor in celebration, a wide grin on his face.

Seconds later, he fell to the court. Leonard was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy by the Ottawa County medical examiner showed he died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.

The team's second Class C district game is scheduled for Wednesday.

Fennville's decision to play Monday came after school officials talked to Leonard's family. While some fans and school officials had talked before the game about how it wouldn't really matter who won, Fennville players didn't seem to have that attitude — rallying to victory after falling behind early.

"Wes would have wanted to win," said Adam Siegel, a teammate of Leonard's. "I wanted to win. ... It felt good to win for him."

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