Friday Night Lights: Max’s dream lights way

Perry
Perry Bergson
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From darkness can come light.

And while this story happened because of the death of a promising young man, it isn’t about his passing.

Rather it’s a tale about love and friendship, about dreams and goals. It’s about a community unwilling to forget.

It’s about people coming together to make something out of nothing, to find some solace in their grief, inspiration in their sadness.

And on Friday evening, the lights will come on.

 

• • •

 

By all reports, Max was a special young man. The 15-year-old was a born leader with a terrific work ethic.

Born on Oct. 28, 1995, he loved sports and took up baseball and hockey early. But there was a lot more to Max than just competition.

In Grade 8, he won the humanitarian award at his graduation at Vickers School.

"He was a passionate young man about what he did," says David Thorpe, a coach, friend of the family and member of the six-man Friday Night Lights campaign committee. "He was a leader among young men and he was skilled. He was good at what he did."

His football buddy Lukas McConechy remembers an undersized dynamo on the gridiron.

"He had the heart of a beast. He was amazing," McConechy said. "He had so much passion, so much heart for the game. He never gave up. He was tenacious, he was the best guy out there. He wasn't the biggest guy out there but he'd do whatever it took to get you down."

He also impressed his coaches.

"He was a very hard-working kid. He was coachable, never made any excuses," Rylan Michalchuk said. "He also had a personality that rubbed off on everybody. He was a really likeable kid and his work ethic rubbed off on other kids because they liked him so much."

Max was a member of the River Riders football program for four years. Sometimes the practices finished in the dark, lit only by the headlights of whatever cars were parked by the field.

On the way home from a football game in Saskatoon one night at age 11, Max wondered why Prince Albert football players couldn’t play under the lights too.

The Friday Night lights campaign was born in that moment.

"Rusty would quite often share with us that Max said this on the way back," says Thorpe, who also coached one of those teams. "We need lights. We need to practise more. We've got to get better. That became a subject that we talked about all the time."

It was a familiar refrain to his friends.

"He'd always talk about it and how cool it would be to have lights," McConechy said. "We always heard it from him."

 

• • •

 

Max, along with Danny Mantyka, 21, of Prince Albert and Wade and Cam Cooper, brothers from the Senlac area, went fishing at Buss Lake in late June of 2011.  

The four were killed on their way home when the de Havilland Beaver float plane they were riding in went down on June 30.

The pilot, Andre Gagnon, 32, of Sherbrooke, Que., also died in the crash.

The reaction to Max’s death was a mix of shock and grief. For many of his peers, it was the first time losing someone close to them.

But it hit a lot of people hard.

"It's a loss anytime you have youth die before they should," says Randy Emmerson, a longtime friend of the family and another member of the six-man committee. "I think that Danny Mantyka and the Cooper men and Max, the hole that's left in the community is going to take a while for us to fill. This is just one example. What else would these guys have thought of or contributed to our community?"

There was an immediate and widespread reaction. With the funeral coming up, there wasn’t a flower to be purchased in the city.

"It was such a tragic story and such a popular figure and well-known family," Thorpe said. "The influx of flowers and food into the Clunie house was overwhelming so finally Prince Albert literally ran out of flowers. Rusty and Sharon had a discussion and said 'What are we going to tell people?' And I think it was Sharon who said 'Let's start the lights fund and tell them to donate to that fund.' It was a popular outlet for people to contribute and express their feelings and show support for the family."

Max's close friend Logan Usselman identifies that moment as the time when a dream began to become a reality

"At his funeral, instead of giving flowers or to a charity, it was donations to the Friends of Max fund, which was going to the lights," Usselman said. "I'd say that's when it all kicked into full gear."

 

• • •

 

The next step took place in September when a group of about a dozen men met for lunch.

Around the table were Emmerson and Thorpe, along with Rusty Clunie, Gord Broda, Randy Kugler, Ian Jensen and others.

They were attempting to capitalize on the momentum the campaign already had from the donations at the funeral.

"That got it rolling and people started thinking about it and it became part of the community consciousness," Emmerson said. "There was a meeting we had, just a number of folks at lunch one day. It went from an idea to an actual plan."

But pulling a few tables together at Boston Pizza that day last September was just the start. Nobody knew better than Randy Kugler how big a job lay ahead.

The manager of electrical supplier Eecol Electric went to the meeting with some plans and an estimate in hand.

"It wouldn't be something that just a bunch of buddies could get together and put together," Kugler said. "It was a pretty big undertaking. From the electrical standpoint, just the service itself, the loads ... this park is lit up."

By the end of that first meeting, they had rough idea of the cost — between $600,000 and $700,000 — and commitments from the people around the table to keep the project moving.

"People were showing that it was more than just one of those passing fancies," Emmerson said. "This was something that was long overdue; let's work together to get this done. The goal was to have lights up by this football season and there were many hurdles."

A potentially major headache was the fact the field is in Prime Ministers' Park, which isn't private land. The committee says that strong backing from Mike Hurd from the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division and Greg Zeeben from the City of Prince Albert helped keep the project moving. 

But they still needed a tangible sign of progress.

"We wanted to be sure that the initial emotional connection to the project became tangible," Emmerson said.

Money would have to be raised. A lot of money.

 

• • •

 

If a young man can be judged by the people around him, Max was blessed. Among his many friends was his near constant companion, Logan Usselman.

"We did everything together," Usselman said. "We both lived on farms out of town so you don't have that many buddies that live down the road that have the quads and the dirt bikes and the skidoos. We did all of our hunting and fishing and sports, everything we did, we did together."

The death of the popular young man was a blow to the kids who knew him.

"It hit me really hard and it hit a lot of people really hard," McConechy says. "For me and a lot of other people, the best way to deal with it — the only way to deal with it — was doing a project like this to remember him. This is a great way because every time you see those lights on, you think of what a great guy he was."

It was a lot tougher for Usselman. He and Max had been inseparable for years.

"(Max’s death) happened right at the start of summer so I didn't have to go to school for two months but even when I got back into school it was like I couldn't do my work. It was all I could think about. When you lose your best friend ... before, when you go to school, you know what you're doing after school. You're either going hunting or fishing or quading or doing something like that with him, or sports. I'm hanging out with Max. But after that, it was like what am I going to do? I was lost without him."

The days and weeks and months after Max’s death were hard on Logan. He found himself slipping.

His grades were going down.

Help came from an unlikely source. Or maybe it made perfect sense.

Usselman just kept heading over to his best friend's house.

Thorpe says that's just how the Clunie household works.

"A neat thing has happened with the Clunie family," he said. "Max's friends are always around Rusty's house. They come by ... they help with the chores that Max would have helped with, they go into the riding stables. Someone staying at the Clunie household might have trouble telling which kids are their's and which aren't because there's kids coming and going all the time. They were ever-present all the way through.”

One of those kids was Usselman.

Now an assistant captain with the midget AA Raiders and playing football with Carlton, he says he has the Clunies to thank.

"My favourite place to be was definitely at the Clunie house. Even after, you'd think if you went there that it would be kind of sad ... they were sad but you'd think it would be such a hard place to go without him there. Max's family is awesome. Rusty and Sharon and Meghan and Alyson and Meghan's boyfriend Tanner (Byrne), they've done so much for me. I'm over there lots; they're just such a happy bunch to be around."

 

• • •

 

Enlisting the support of the entire community was going to be key if the campaign was to reach its funding targets. Naturally, Max’s friends would have to participate.

It would often come up when Usselman was over visiting the Clunies.

"Me and Rusty talked about it lots, what all we could do with the lights, if we could get them up and how we'd go about getting the money for it," Usselman says. "And then we just kind of said OK, we'll get a group of kids together."

They made a point of reaching out to students at Carlton and St. Mary to form the Friends Of Max group.

Having a tangible way to work through their pain was cathartic for the teenagers.

"If it hadn't been for this, I would still be dealing with it a lot harder," McConechy says.

“When we lost him it was tragic, it was heartbreaking. Everyone felt this was the best way to honour him. We had to do it up big."

The group’s major fundraiser came out of a lunchtime discussion between Gord Broda’s daughter Noelle and Max’s sister Alyson.

"We were involved right from the beginning," Noelle Broda says. "I grew up calling the Clunies family basically, so I knew about the intentions of the campaign and what the plan was going to be to leave a legacy for Max within days of the accident."

But the two women weren’t brainstorming about ways to make money.

Stickers with the words “Max Power” on them had been handed out at the funeral and the pair thought it would be nice to have T-shirts for the families.

Noelle was already planning to meet with the Friends Of Max.

"As soon as I was home in May, my dad approached me to ask if I would help out," Noelle Broda says. "Then Rusty approached me to ask if I would be one of the leaders for the Friends of Max campaign for the young friends of Max."

During a meeting with the group, she happened to mention the T-shirts and they seized it on as great idea.

They were right. They sold 800 shirts and raised $8,000. They will be available at the game on Friday night.

 

• • •

 

When a dream takes shape, eventually it runs into some concrete realities.

The job was massive. The supplies were expensive. The size of the job would make the cost of labour prohibitive.

All of that made Kugler indispensible. At Eecol Electric, he sells directly to the electricians in Prince Albert.

He knew Max because his son and stepson had played hockey with him.

"Obviously because of knowing Max and watching him grow up, I got more and more involved and asked more questions about how we could help out," Kugler says. "Knowing I was on the electrical side, they approached me to help out with some lighting stuff for them and doing some proposals and ideas to do on the field. And then we kind of went from there."

Thorpe says Kugler played a larger role than he admits.

"He was a real leader at that meeting. He said we can get it done," Thorpe says. "We'll give you support. He said he'd talked to all of the electrical companies and contractors already and they're all in. This groundswell had stemmed from the funeral and the cause was known in the community. They were at the front all along."

That’s another of the beautiful things about this story.

Electrical companies, who work in competition against each other, signed up to volunteer together on this project.

Bill’s Electric City, Asiil Enterprises, Liteway Electric, SOS Electric and Saunders Electric all signed up. Kugler says it didn’t take much persuading.

"I'm close enough to them that I could ask that question," Kugler says. "I'm asking guys to take money out of their pockets on this for the community and for the Clunies family and in memorium for Max. There were some tears in their eyes, I'm sure. They dove right into it."

Business rivalries never entered the equation.

"They're competing and fighting against each other on a day-to-day basis and they did definitely come together," Kugler says. "They compete hard and on this site it was all volunteer. It was really good."

It took off so much that one of the contractors, Bill Sokulski, took the helm and oversaw the electrical side from then on.

"It's a good group of guys that we have here," Kugler says. "They're all my customers but we're a pretty close group. It was for a good cause ... to see the community advance in any way, all of the guys got on board really quick. It was for the kids, right? And a memorium for Max. Everybody sure sympathizes with that whole situation so it really motivated people."

And they had additional motivation.

"Sharon and Rusty are good people," Kugler says. "They were very easy people to visit with and be in the rinks with. You just go your extra step for people like that."

Outside construction had to wait for the June track and field season to end but electricians get extremely busy in July.

They were able to do the inside work like wiring and putting the control boxes in the finish line building.

The actual job of putting up the poles and the final wiring took just three days with the large crew on hand.

 

• • •

 

The campaign was officially launched on June 15 by the committee, which consisted of Emmerson, Thorpe, Jensen, Gord Broda, Rusty Clunie and Mitchell Holash.

At that point the committee had a $50,000 grant from Community Initiatives, $50,000 from the Friends of Max from after Max's funeral and a $50,000 pledge by the Kinsmen.

Thorpe and Jensen had made a presentation to the club in the winter and then again later in the spring when more details were known.

Kinsmen president Jared Devers said the decision was an easy one for the club, which played an active role in getting the River Riders program started.

“It was a good way to get the community, to get a little higher calibre events going plus it would be beneficial for other things, non-sport related, like (Relay For Life),” Devers says. “In general, we just thought that it would be a good idea to do. Obviously those guys came and gave a great presentation, which makes it easier to donate as well.”

Then the club had another idea. Instead of just donating the money, they would match a community-wide appeal to attempt to double their money.

The radio-a-thon involved three local radio stations in the city — Mix 101, Power 99 and CKBI 900 — broadcasting from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m. on June 19.

The committee crossed its fingers, hoping that enough would be raised so that the Kinsmen would match dollar for dollar with their $50,000.

The outpouring of support was phenomenal. About $110,000 was raised that day, more than doubling the Kinsmen contribution.

"It was overwhelming, especially the radio-a-thon," McConechy says. " It was not just a few people, it was the whole community that got behind it. It was really amazing to see."

Part of the day's success came from the involvement of Ben Darchuk's friends. The popular owner of Ben’s Auto Glass was killed on May 20 after his vehicle was struck by another vehicle.

Since Darchuk a former Kinsmen member, was a strong proponent of Friday Night Lights, his family directed donations to the campaign and his friends took an active role in helping out.

Even with the big day, the campaign still had $280,000 more to go.

But something had changed.

"That's far more than we would have anticipated," Emmerson said, "and that to me was ... this is not only going to fly, it's going to be such a highlight for not just football but the entire community."

Thorpe agreed.

"We felt that with the Kinsmen matching the radio-a-thon was maybe the point where we really thought we would make it," he says. "We were prepared, because of the timing of the lights needing to be in — we needed to purchase the materials ahead of time — we were fully prepared to borrow a bit of money and fundraise afterwards. We were thinking that was a real possibility. After that day, we were probably thinking there's a better than 50-50 chance that we could get it all done this year."

The work continued.

A mother of one of the Rivers Riders players organized a bottle drive that collected $2,500. People would win the 50-50 draw at games and donate it to the campaign.

The good news kept coming. Large donations from Clunie Consulting Engineers, the Broda Group and B&B Group moved the tally to within sight of the finish line.

The donation that put the campaign over the top was important because it represented other users buying in.

"The one that really finished it off was PASA, the Soccer Association, which was also significant because of the size, $50,000, but also the support from other user groups."

In just two weeks the mountain had been climbed.

"I was really surprised," Thorpe says. "In our meeting we had great feelings about our cause and great hope but we were always cautious that not everyone shares your dream and your vision and Max's dream and vision. We never took anything anything for granted so again, when we say thanks to all of the small donations that came in, it was really important that we felt that connection to the community. We were never sure that it would absolutely happen."

St. Mary football coach Curt Hundeby says the entire campaign is an inspiration.

"Sometimes it takes a tragedy to rally people together," Hundeby says. "This really is one of those events. What is really a sad story has brought a lot of people together to do something very good for the community. That's going to last for a long time and leave a very substantial legacy that people will remember and look back to. I really appreciate what these guys have done."

 

• • •

 

When Malcolm Jenkins tells you that he’s doing something, it gets done.

Quickly.

The philanthropist suggested to the committee that a signature game be held each year on the field. It would be named after his business, hence the Canadian Tire Classic, and he would give the winning team $1,000 to donate to the charity of their choice.

He would also design and donate a massive trophy.

Jenkins says he hopes the game has a long future.

“I thought we should make an event out of it,” he told the Herald last month. “Hopefully it will be an annual one.”

It was a popular idea with the coaches of the Carlton Crusaders and the St. Mary Marauders, the two teams that will take part in the game.

"The more positive influences that we can bring into minor football and high school football, the better," Hundeby says. "Having Canadian Tire and Malcolm on board for this is fantastic. There's a certain level of exposure that comes along with this game, there's an increased hype. The more we can make this a truly city-wide event, the better. It does nothing but good for the sport."

Carlton’s Michalchuk agrees.

"Anytime you can promote football in Prince Albert, it's going to help our game grow in the community and get more people out to see what kind of product that we put on the field," Michalchuk says. "It helps out all around. We both have strong programs and lots of good players so it will be good for the kids to showcase their talents too."

St. Mary brought back its program seven years and the team have met the last six. Recent games have come down to a play or two in the fourth quarter in what’s become a compelling rivalry.

The fact that a win could catapult the winner into the playoffs and end the season of the loser puts an even greater emphasis on the game.

"There's a lot more riding on it than just P.A. bragging rights," Hundeby says.

There’s a lot more than just a football game that night.

There will be a ceremony before, at 5 p.m., and a cabaret after featuring Donny Parenteau.

While Michalchuk worries about his team’s state of mind, he’s determined that the squad will find the right way to channel what they’re feeling.

"It will be emotional for us because of the tragic events that occurred leading up to this," Michalchuk says. "We'll try to bottle all of that emotion and focus it on what we need to do as a coaching staff and as a team that day."

 

• • •

 

Max certainly hasn't been forgotten by the team he would have been playing this year.

Carlton makes a special effort to remember the young player who would have been on the team this season.

"For every year he would have played, we take his jersey to the field and put it on the bench so that he's out there for every game with us," McConechy says.

They also wear stickers on their helmets.

But it’s the actual lights themselves that remind his friends of Max.

"You're playing and the lights are shining on you and you're thinking about Max," Usselman says. "It's like he's there with you."

In one of their first games under the lights, Carlton was trailing late in the game when the lights suddenly went out. His friends had no doubt about who was responsible.

"The big joke was that Max didn't want us to lose so he shut the lights off," Usselman says with a chuckle.

The game was eventually called and while the St. Joseph Guardians of Saskatoon won 33-14, it was the unofficial start of a new era.

 

 • • •

 

"All of these things that are happening around such a tragic event is inspirational," Michalchuk says. "A Grade 9 kid is able to have that effect on so many people in our community and have the community come together and raise the money for the lights in his honour. It makes you proud to be part of this community."

So what was it about Max that inspired so many people?

People struggle to get at the essence of the young man.

"To borrow a line from Gord Broda, he was a young man far beyond his years," Thorpe says. “And to hear Rusty and Sharon and other people talk about him, he was still a young boy too. He had all the dynamics of both spectrums. It's truly a tragic loss for all of us."

Emmerson, who once played high school football and graduated with Max's parents, says it never occurred to him that Prince Albert should have lights.

"When somebody like Max comes along and has that same experience but sees it through that inquisitive, curious youth, and we should have (lights), that's part of the leadership, that vision that we can do this. I think it's his character, plus the way we should see things."

Noelle Broda spent a lot of time around Max.

"I think it was Max's heart," she says. "He was so welcoming and so genuine. He would never have anything awful to say about anybody. He embraced all of those who entered his life with open arms and wanted to make sure they felt welcome and that everybody around him was having a great time."

Kugler says thinking about it chokes him up.

“He always had a respectfully humble smile and looked right in your eyes and smiled at you. He was a good kid."

His friends have their own theories about why the campaign succeeded.

"I think it was the love of Max. Everyone knew Max and knew he was such a good guy," McConechy says. "It was so tragic when we lost him. We always knew that this was one of his dreams and this was just a great way to remember him."

Max’s constant companion Logan Usselman gets the final word.

"I think the reason these lights got up so fast and efficiently is it's like everyone had a little of Max in them."

 

• • •

 

On Friday evening, two teams will run out onto a brightly lit field and they will play football.

It will be a fitting tribute to the young man whose idea led to the project and the community that embraced it.

It will be the light of Max’s dream brightening the field, the undersized linebacker making one final play.

They did it, Max! They did it!

 

perry.bergson@paherald.sk.ca

Organizations: Daily Herald, Night Lights

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