Pulling together: Friends and family gather at LOP to remember Bear River junior
As the sun set on south county’s Lake of the Pines community Monday night, the glow of candlelight lit up the tear-stained cheeks of hundreds of high school students, teachers, coaches and teammates saying goodbye to a beloved Bear River Bruin, Justin Butler.
Aside from the somber sound of students sobbing and tennis shoes shuffling across the asphalt along Torrey Pines Drive, they walked in silence toward his home in a show of support for his family overcome with grief.
Dying at the age of 16 early Monday morning, Justin Butler wasn’t blessed with a long life, but the impact he made on the Bear River community in such a short time was impressively evident in the blazing bright circle of candles surrounding the swimming pool in his parents’ backyard.
“I’m just blown away,” Eric Butler, Justin’s father, told the candle-carrying crowd surrounding his family. “I can’t explain how I feel to you. But showing us so much love is going to help.
“This is what community is all about.”
Justin Butler was a football player, one who scored his very first varsity touchdown just last Friday night, providing a bright spot in an otherwise bleak evening during a 35-7 Bruin loss at Woodcreek.
The 6-foot, 150-pound junior wideout took a handoff and sped to the right sideline, where he was met by a pair of defenders who lowered the boom on him just short of the goal line. Despite his wiry frame, Justin drove his way through the would-be tacklers – losing his helmet in the fray – and spilled into the end zone for the score.
After the game, he dismissed praise for the play as easily as he did the defenders who had failed to stop him short. Saying his touchdown wasn’t so much due to him, but to the teammates who plowed the path for him to follow.
“I just saw my linemen block their butts off,” he said, before hurrying to huddle alongside his fellow Bruins after the defeat. “They gave me a perfect opportunity to drive it in.”
Monday night, several of his teammates talked about how excited he was on Saturday, reflecting on his touchdown and the post-game interview that followed, telling them he had actually wanted to use a stronger term than “butts,” yet thought better of it knowing that it would likely appear in the newspaper the next morning.
“For him to score that touchdown … the only one of the game, was just so special for him,” said Harley Sauers, Justin’s teammate and friend. “I was just so proud of him and that he got that chance to shine, that moment of glory he’s always talked about.”
In talking with his teammates and coaches, who spent so many long hours with him on the practice field, in the weight room and at summer camp, it seemed only fitting that he was the Bruin to provide Friday night’s highlight, offering a reason to smile in what had been a long night.
“Butler was a prankster,” said Bear River coach Scott Savoie. “He was always joking around, quick to smile and quick to laugh. He was just a great kid.
“That was his first varsity score. One real bright spot in our game Friday was him being able to push one in and that was just real big for him.”
As many snaps as they shared on the field over the past few years, classmate Dallen Heutter didn’t waste time in choosing which photograph on display Monday night most depicted Justin, as he cradled his fallen teammate’s football helmet in his arms.
“Right here, that’s Justin Butler. Not here … not here,” Heutter said, dismissing a pair of football photos. Instead, he pointed to a shot of Justin standing on a wakeboard, wearing next to nothing but a cowboy hat and a smile.
“Right there … that’s Justin Butler.”
Savoie and Bear River’s football staff met with team members Monday afternoon and planned to go ahead with Friday night’s game against River Valley High School in Yuba City.
“The last thing Butler would want is for us to not play,” said Brian Kenyon, a Bear River senior who was among the Bruin linemen to lead the way to Justin’s touchdown. “I know he would want us to keep going.”
Kenyon said he met Justin just last year, but got to know him well over the summer.
“Words cannot describe that kid,” he said. “He was probably the most genuinely happy, goofy and all-around weird kid you’d ever know. You couldn’t help but look at that kid and just start smiling and laughing.”
Standing at the center of the candlelight vigil, Kenyon shared a story that he said pretty much summed up his junior teammate. Apparently, while kicking back on Saturday night, Kenyon got a Facebook message from Justin.
“I made you cupcakes!” he wrote, before asking whether Kenyon wanted them now or on Monday morning. Seeing that he was in already in bed, Kenyon said Monday would be just fine.
And although he didn’t get to see him Monday morning, Kenyon said he did get the gift from Justin’s parents packed in the Tupperware case prepared by his friend.
“I guess,” Kenyon said, “that was Butler just being able to say he always kept his promise.”
The support shown by members of the LOP community through the candlelight walk not only impressed Justin’s father Monday night, but also the coaches who have the task of wrapping their arms around an entire team of teenagers who are hurting like hell right now.
Savoie, who struggled to find the words in describing how devastating Justin’s death was for Bear River High School and his Bruins, was equally moved by Monday night’s moment.
“Our kids are not alone,” Savoie said. “Our community has embraced us, for sure. And the kids have embraced each other and it’s been amazing to see that.”
Contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 477-4240.
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