No one would have blamed Aaron Gingrich if, five years ago, he had walked away from sports and never looked back.
Gingrich, Lewistown's boys basketball coach, was with former Panther standout Justin Henry when Henry was tragically killed by lightning. And it wasn't the first time sports and tragedy had mixed in Gingrich's life. A basketball teammate of his sister, Krista, also suffered an early and tragic death, after winning the state championship together on a team Aaron helped coach.
Actually, Gingrich says, there is one person who would not have tolerated the Lewistown coach hanging it up - Justin Henry. Henry, he said, would have kicked him, well, you know where, and told him to get back out there.
Perhaps that's why Gingrich is so driven to make the Justin Henry Scholarship Trust a success - because Justin wouldn't have it any other way.
His biggest fear is that, as time passes, people will forget who Justin Henry was. What he did on and off the field. And then there are those who needed to be educated as to who Henry was - count me among them. Lewistown sports were peripheral to my career until I came to The Sentinel, and until someone told me the story, Justin Henry was just a guy whose Rhode Island uniforms were on display above the door at J.P. Edward's.
I've learned that he was so much more. And that he should not be forgotten.
Henry's athletic career at Lewistown was stellar - he was the school's all-time leading scorer in basketball and a record-setting football player, too. He was among the top students in his class, which is why academics as well as athletic ability are factored when determining who will receive the annual scholarship that bears his name.
In college, he was a three-year starter in football and, in a rare accomplishment for a Division I athlete - especially one on a scholarship - he was a two-sport athlete his senior year, adding a season of basketball to his resume before graduating with honors.
But if you ask me, what made Justin really special was that he came back home, went into his profession here, where he could help his community.
And that's why Friday's basketball game between Indian Valley and Lewistown is so important. It will help the community - specifically, it will help several students receive scholarship money that will allow them to continue their education, students who may be the next Justin Henry.
In his memory, the community already has helped more than a dozen students, in just four short years. The early recipients include Lewistown's Brittany Stauffer and Indian Valley's Ryan Korona in 2005, Indian Valley's Allison Mitchell and Lewistown's Chris Tressler and Mike Baker in 2006. In 2007, the trust began awarding four scholarships, one each to a boy and girl from each school. Morgan Bobb and Dan Lauder represented Lewistown, from Indian Valley it was Bryson Hartzler and Megan Schulze.
The most recent beneficiaries were Matt Snyder and Kelli Grassmyer from Lewistown, Morgan Mowery and Adam Weaver from Indian Valley. This year, the recipients will include the first Susan Baker award winner, honoring a local nurse and Panther fan - and mother to three Lewistown student athletes, including scholarship recipient Mike Baker - who supported the trust before her untimely death due to cancer. That award will go to a student who may not be an athlete, but is pursuing a career in nursing.
When you go to the game Friday, it won't matter whether you're rooting for Indian Valley or Lewistown. All that matters is you'll be backing the future of students from both schools.
Justin Henry would be proud.