TEMPLE TERRACE — You would have liked Heze.
The white casket was wheeled down a sidewalk outside the church, between teammates and friends, trailed by family. The afternoon was scorching hot, as it had been 11 days earlier. The casket was bound for a white hearse, then a final journey for an extraordinary child of God whose life ended much too soon.
The rest of us are left with questions, heartache and a profound sense of waste. What killed 14-year-old Hezekiah Ben Walters, an incoming Middleton High freshman who collapsed June 11 during offseason football conditioning drills and died?
On Saturday, hundreds gathered at Bible-Based Fellowship Church of Temple Terrace to bid farewell, to celebrate Hezekiah’s life, to rely on their rock-ribbed faith that they will see him again, to cry tears of joy and sorrow, tissues ready.
Parents burying children. It shouldn’t be this way. It cuts across the natural order.
Kids who are 14 shouldn’t be in open caskets. They should be in swimming pools, at the mall, working summer jobs.
Hezekiah’s parents, Phyllis and Felix, sat in front. Phyllis, a middle school guidance counselor, displayed a serenity that filled the church. Felix, a church pastor, eulogized his 14-year-old.
“God needed him more than we did,” he said.
Autopsy results won’t be made public for weeks, months. But something will happen. People will probably lose their jobs.
Hours after the tragedy, the Hillsborough County School District halted all summer workouts and athletic activities until safety procedures are reviewed at every school.
It’s too late for Hezekiah. It’s like throwing up traffic lights after a bad crash. Is this what it takes? Losing a child? Failing our most precious trust?
That cloud beat down on you like the heat outside the church. It bore into you as a procession of people talked about “Heze,” as he was known. We never know these children. They are names in a news story. If we knew them, we’d do something about tragedies like this.
“He was a gentle, kind spirit,” said Maria Watson, who was Heze’s chemistry and physics tutor. “He was always kind, always a gentleman. He always walked with dignity.”
A petition, more than 1,000 signatures strong, is being circulated to demand the county require full-time athletic trainers at high schools. There wasn’t one at Middleton that day. No one knows if it would have saved Hezekiah, if it was heatstroke or not.
Heze? He just wanted to play offensive line. He was determined to be a Middleton Tiger. He died trying.
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“All he wanted to do was be part of us,” said Middleton rising senior and linebacker David Dor.
Did Hezekiah die in vain? Moving forward, will we learn enough to do more? If we don’t, eventually we will be at another funeral for another young man.
What a young man this was. Heze was a kid who crammed a lot of life into 14 years.
As everyone in the church knew, he lived for the moment, embraced every second, all behind a smile that welcomed people in. On his last day, before his last football workout, he stopped for chicken, biscuits and honey, his favorite. Now he is part of a tragic statistic, among the players in this country who have died during football workouts.
You would have liked Heze.
His world was about family. It included being an honor student and playing sports. He played cymbals in a youth marching band, and drums, and sang in youth choirs, took high school credit classes. He loved movies and chess and video games and Gummy Bears. Heze was dynamic, exuberant, caring, cool, courageous, graceful, diligent. This was a young man with a plan.
“Hezekiah, he done changed the game,” his older sister, Phyllisity, a Florida A&M student, told everyone.
Ross Anderson spoke at the funeral. Anderson is founder of Men of Vision, a service organization that promotes brotherhood and helps young men find their stars, be it in college, the military or trade school.
“Heze joined us back when he was in fifth grade,” Anderson said before the service. “He was the youngest member we had. His mom believed in the organization. He was that little brother to all the other guys. Hezekiah did everything in his power to truly stand out. If we had a hundred Hezekiahs, we wouldn’t need Men of Vision. He was that dedicated, that focused, that destined for something great.”
On a hot Saturday in Temple Terrace, they lifted and eased the white casket into the back of the white hearse. People wept again for Heze, for plans and for dreams, all unfinished.
Will something come of this? I mean, why were the rest of us left behind except to do something?
The back door to the hearse was shut. It was time for the cemetery.
You would have liked Heze.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.