SI Vault
February 20, 2012
You may have heard about the Michigan high schooler who made a game-winning basket and then died. Here's the rest of the story: a violent car crash, a bone-shaking tackle, a near-perfect season, a reluctant substitute and a search for the will to carry on
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February 20, 2012

The Legacy Of Wes Leonard

You may have heard about the Michigan high schooler who made a game-winning basket and then died. Here's the rest of the story: a violent car crash, a bone-shaking tackle, a near-perfect season, a reluctant substitute and a search for the will to carry on

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After the autopsy, when the doctor found white blossoms of scar tissue on Wes Leonard's heart, he guessed they had been secretly building there for several months. That would mean Wes's heart was slowly breaking throughout the Fennville Blackhawks' 2010--11 regular season, when he led them in scoring and the team won 20 games without a loss.

It would mean his heart was already moving toward electrical meltdown in December, when he scored 26 on Decatur with that big left shoulder clearing a path to the hoop. It would mean his heart swelled and weakened all through January (25 against Hopkins, 33 against Martin) even as it pumped enough blood to fill at least 10 swimming pools.

This heart pounded two million times in February, probably more, heaving under its own weight, propelling Wes's 6'2", 230-pound frame along the glimmering hardwood with such precision and force that finally a kid from Hartford gave up on the rules and tackled him in the lane. By March 3, the night of Wes's last and most glorious game, his heart weighed 21½ ounces, double the weight of a normal heart, and it gave him all he needed from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Then the wiring failed, the current going as jagged as a thunderbolt, and Wes fell to the floor with his big heart quivering.

If all this seems implausible—that Wes could play so well for so long with such faulty equipment—consider a scientific phenomenon called functional reserve. The human heart has a reservoir of unused ability, like a powerful car that can go 150 mph but never gets pushed above 75. A normal heart will pump about 60% of its blood volume with each beat. But one cardiologist tells the story of a bodybuilder who thrived for nearly a decade with a heart that could pump only about 10% per beat. Pistol Pete Maravich, arguably the greatest college basketball player of all time, was born with no left coronary artery. His right one worked twice as hard. It kept him alive for 40 years. The body finds a way to compensate, at least for a while. Functional reserve is not just for the heart. Every organ has this hidden power, this ability to outperform its perceived limits when the need is desperate.

Fennville is a blue-collar town in southwestern Michigan, six miles east of Lake Michigan, with a high school gym large enough to fit all of the 1,400 citizens. It nearly did so toward the end of Wes Leonard's junior season, as the Blackhawks won game after game behind his 19-point scoring average. It was the best show in town and, for some, a welcome escape.

Fennville High principal Amber Lugten guessed that in half of her students' families, at least one parent was looking for work. A man not at the game might be at Steven's on Main Street, a good dark place to drink canned domestic lager while pondering his career options now that the old fruit cannery was a shell of its former self and the Life Savers factory had gone to Canada and the welding company had laid him off months earlier. He could risk his last dollars on the Club Keno game playing on the monitor above the bar, watch the red sphere fall like a drop of blood on a grid of 72 numbers, pray for the jackpot. Otherwise he could collect scrap metal to sell by the pound, or ride his bike along the roadside with plastic bags dangling from the handlebars, filling them with 10-cent aluminum cans, and then ride out to the woods, scavenging deer camps for the relics of drunken hunters. After the summer he might find a job picking apples on the hills outside town, alongside the itinerant Mexicans whose children push Fennville's school enrollment up every March and back down in October, as regular as a heartbeat.

Yes, they've heard of functional reserve in Fennville. Whether by that name or some other.


The key to this story is a boy named Xavier Grigg, who could have been the finest three-sport athlete in Fennville. In 2005 he was not especially tall or strong for an 11-year-old, but he was quick and crafty, with a slingshot arm he'd been developing since his days as a toddler throwing imaginary baseballs. His best sport was baseball, and his third-best was basketball. In the middle was football, which put him on a clear path toward the most exalted position a teenage boy can reach in a small U.S. town: starting varsity quarterback.

Everything changed when Wes Leonard came to Fennville that fall. He was 27 days younger than Xavier but so physically advanced that his mother carried his birth certificate in a ziplock bag in her purse, just to prove he wasn't a ringer. Xavier tried to defend his territory, telling Wes, "I don't care how you big you are, I'm gonna beat you," but he couldn't, except maybe in baseball, in which they took turns throwing no-hitters. In basketball and football there was no contest. Wes sharpened his jump shot all winter on a 10-foot goal in the converted garage that adjoined his bedroom. He and his father, Gary, a 6'5" hulk of a man who'd been recruited in football by several Division I universities, used to hurl a football back and forth at top speed, taking a step closer with each throw, to see who would drop it first. If Xavier had a slingshot, then Wes had a cannon. In their youth football leagues Xavier finally accepted the role of backup quarterback, taking snaps only when Wes got hurt and otherwise catching one touchdown after another as Wes's favorite receiver.

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