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Colorful, candid memorial celebrates teenager's life

Five TV sets, a movie screen, a band and colorful balloons inside the church hinted that this was not the typical memorial service.

"This will not be like any funeral you've witnessed before," said Rhett Talbert, pastor of Pasadena Presbyterian Church, "because Leighton was like no one you've ever known."

About 1,400 people gathered at Pasadena Community Church Saturday to celebrate the life of Leighton Langston, 18, who was taken off life support Thursday after six days in a coma. He became comatose after apparently suffering a heart attack during a soccer game June 23.

The memorial celebration was moved from the Langstons' church, Pasadena Presbyterian, because it couldn't accommodate the large crowd expected to attend the service.

During the celebration Leighton's father, Fred Langston, a Christian musician, played piano and led family, friends and acquaintances in songs.

"We celebrate this morning, because what else are you going to do?" he asked.

He encouraged everyone to "put your hands together, get in the groove" as lyrics appeared on the movie screen.

While people tapped their feet to the music and laughed over fond remembrances of the young man described as fun-loving, sniffles arose from the crowd as the mood was tempered with serious reflection.

Lu Langston described her son as a "wonderful person but a troubled person."

"As a family who loved him very much and loved the Lord, this concentrated grief of the past week has been felt in trickles for us over the past few years," Mrs. Langston said.

Last year, Leighton left home for 10 days following a near-fatal car crash involving three other Boca Ciega High School students, Mrs. Langston said.

"We knew he had been smoking marijuana and drinking quite a bit," she said. "The final blow was his not graduating from high school because of skipping."

Leighton, who transferred to St. Petersburg High last year, planned to finish high school this summer before enrolling in St. Petersburg Junior College.

His parents had imposed a curfew on him to help get him on the right track and recently he seemed to be turning things around, Mrs. Langston said; he'd been coming home early and surprised her one day by doing most of the family chores. But the night before the soccer game he stayed out all night with a friend, she said.

"His struggle is over," Mrs. Langston said. But she said there are wounds, "left in our hearts because of Leighton's inability or refusal to fully receive and give love to us. It is a permanent scar.

"As you think about your relationships, think about the high price of the choices we make so casually."

Luke Langston, Leighton's 22-year-old brother, challenged those attending to do two things with the memorial bookmark bearing his brother's photos and quotes.

"Maybe laminate it. Put it in the book that matters most to us," Luke Langston said. "I'm going to use it as my Bible bookmark."

Luke Langston spoke of the quotes on the bookmark. One of them came from a conversation Leighton had had with his father about two weeks ago, Luke Langston said. Mr. Langston had asked him if he was with Jesus.

Leighton put his answer in his own language, Luke Langston said. Leighton's response: "Me and Jesus? We're straight, Dad."

Toward the end of the celebration, the television screens lit up with images of Leighton as a baby to his recent days on the soccer field, wearing his No. 8 jersey. He was a standout high school soccer player.

Tears welled in the eyes of some of a group of youths who sat on steps leading up to the church stage, but even they broke into laughter when a video clip showed a young Leighton break-dancing.

Brooke Dubbeld, 17, a recent Boca Ciega High School graduate who knew Leighton about seven years said the service "fit him."

"He was very colorful," she said, "Like the balloons."