NEW TAMPA — They met on the golf course, two teenage boys who loved the sport but also loved to goof around.
Harrison Kowiak and Lance Byars, then students at the Inner Circle of Golf Academy in Brandon, learned that both were attending Wharton High School.
Pretty soon, they were inseparable at school, too.
When they went off to different colleges, they kept in constant contact. Last week, Byars received a call from a friend that Kowiak had died.
As the news circulated, Kowiak's friends and others who knew him locally have tried to cope with the loss.
Byars went online and saw all the pictures of his best friend and the tributes. He broke down and cried.
"It's so strange. It doesn't seem right," he said. "I can't call him anymore. He's not there."
Kowiak, a former Wharton High School golf standout, was in the middle of a North Carolina pasture, known by the Theta Chi fraternity of Lenoir-Rhyne University as the "Buffalo Ranch," when he somehow suffered trauma to his head. Authorities were still investigating the case this week.
Kowiak was one of two Theta Chi pledges at the off-campus event Nov. 17 playing a game that fraternity executive director Dale Taylor described as a "team-building" exercise similar to "capture the flag."
He was pronounced dead at a hospital the next day. His infectious personality made him popular on the small campus of Lenoir-Rhyne, where he had a smile for everyone, said student Erika Jo Falk. Falk posted a tribute page to Kowiak on Facebook, which quickly drew hundreds of friends and messages of condolence.
One video on the page shows Kowiak with his friends on the Wharton campus in a music video lipsynching to the Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way. The boys are seen dancing in the gym, popping out of garbage cans and waving their arms in the elevator.
Kowiak's parents, who live in Arbor Greene, spoke at a memorial service on campus for their son, Falk said.
Byars remembered his best friend as someone who was always happy.
In 2005, when Byars qualified for the Pro-Am at Colonial in Texas, with their parents' permission, the boys skipped school and flew to the event, where Kowiak caddied for him. After Byars moved to attend the University of North Texas months later, the boys visited each other summers and holidays.
They spoke on the phone, sometimes for hours, after every tournament they played, Byars said in a phone interview from Texas.
The last time they spoke, Kowiak didn't have a very good game. They laughed because he wouldn't tell Byars what he shot.
"I'll just look it up online," Byars told him before giving his friend a pep talk.
Kowiak also called his coach at the Inner Circle of Golf about once a month. He was supposed to work on his game with coach Shane Gillespie when he came home for the Thanksgiving break this week.
"He had a bright smile and was never depressed. Even while playing golf, if things didn't go exactly the way he wanted, he managed to maintain a bright attitude," Gillespie said.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or email@example.com.