View Full Version : Kind of tough NOT to cheer for the Okanagan Sun...

10-26-2004, 08:24 AM
Wow. What a story.

There's life, then football


This is supposed to be the game of their lives. A road trip. A shot at a national championship. A chance to play in Commonwealth Stadium. A chance to go out on top.

This game is all they've ever dreamed about.

Now that they're here, and their courageous and inspirational journey to Edmonton is over, Saturday afternoon's result couldn't seem less significant.

What happened on the road to get here will stay with them longer than anything that happens on the field - infinitely longer than any ring or trophy.

"What happened to our team this year is more about life and life experiences,'' said Okanagan Sun GM Les Weiss, whose club, still in mourning over the death of a popular teammate, will try and cap an undefeated season with a Canadian Junior Football championship. "To see our players band together the way they have has been something very, very special. We've learned that you can never take anything for granted.''

Not even life itself.

"If anything, that was the biggest thing any of these kids realized out of all this,'' said Weiss. "We could all be gone tomorrow so make the most of today.''

Seven weeks after teammate Jeff Halvorson died on the practice field, the Sun are still struggling to make sense of it. He was only 21. He had just gottern married. He had a 16-month old daughter and a wife who is expecting their second child two days before Christmas.

"It's been tough on the guys,'' said head coach Jay Christensen, a former Eskimos slotback. "I've been involved in football now for 25 years and never had to be through anything like this. At least as adults you can put things into perspective, but these are 18 to 22- year-old guys and they just weren't equipped for this. It's been really hard on them.''


Halvorson, who grew up in Grande Prairie and played in Edmonton before joining the Sun, was their best player. Their leader. Their nicest guy. Then one day he fell down in practice and never got up.

"It's like a bad dream,'' linebacker Jeff Swaan said in the days after Halvorson's death. "I keep expecting him to walk up the stairs right now. He was in the best shape of his life.''

The team had just started a simple footspeed drill when Halvorson, a six-foot-one, 180-pound running back, collapsed.

"They were spread out the length of the goal line and I was in the middle with the whistle,'' Christensen said over the phone from Kelowna, B.C. "It was run 10 yards, touch the line and run back. We'd done maybe two of them and next thing you hear is players yelling for the trainer. I turn around and look and saw a guy laying on the ground. You think maybe he's going to be sick, or he's cramped or something.''

But Halvorson wasn't breathing. The trainer arrived in an instant and the ambulance within minutes.


"He was on the field for about half an hour,'' said Christensen, who was later told that Halvorson died instantly. "I told the guys to go in and and get changed, but no one left, they all just stood and watched.''

Best friend and teammate Dave Simpson held on to his buddy till help arrived.

"It was so hard because he was always a fighter and when he was down you just expected him to get up. And when you don't see him get up, it was definitely the scariest thing I've seen in my life.''

They still aren't entirely sure what happened, other than he had clotting in his main arteries that led to a heart attack. His lymph nodes were enlarged, likely due to an infection.

"Seeing somebody like Jeff, who was young and fit. You wonder why? How can it happen,'' said Weiss. "Such a great person.''

Halvorson was leading his conference in rushing and scoring and on pace to shatter several national records and is nominated for outstanding offensive player in the country. But football, his teammates say, is a small part of what made him special.

"Everybody liked him,'' said Christensen. "The stories about him that flooded in, cards and letters from all the people that he touched - there wasn't a person he met that he didn't impact somehow.

"Add to that the fact he was a family man, had been married six weeks, had a 16-month old daughter and another one on the way Dec. 23. It's just been tearing at everyone's heart.''

The team set up a trust fund for his wife and daughter, who has moved back to Sylvan Lake to live with her parents. As for his teammates, something they can barely comprehend has bonded them together like nothing else could.

"They've all been helping each other get through it,'' said Christensen. "It's been emotional, but I've never seen a team this close.''

Because their Sept. 4 game had been postponed, the Sun had to finish the season with three games in eight days. They won them all. When they posed for the celebration photo after clinching a trip to Edmonton, Halvorson's picture was right in the middle.

"It's been such a hard thing, you try and take the positives out of it the best you can,'' said Simpson. "Whenever we need a little push or some help to get going, we just have to look down at our own jerseys and see the No. 34. We know he's up there.''

A national championship won't give a toddler her daddy back or a team its leader back. But the most powerful tribute the Okanagan players can make is to model themselves after Jeff Halvorson and let the chips fall where they may.

"They've just resolved themselves to playing in his image,'' said Christensen. "He's the kind of guy that if you were a coach you'd want 40 of.''