PHOENIX – Bright lights lit up the football field at Cesar Chavez High School on a recent Friday night, but a cloud of sorrow and despair overshadowed the stadium during a blowout loss to Mesa High.
Myseth Currie, who played at Cesar Chavez last season, said the defeat was difficult to swallow, but even harder to digest was the atmosphere compared to what he experienced as a player just one year ago.
Currie, like all of the Champions community, is working through the grief that has engulfed the program since the death of Christopher Hampton, a 15-year-old who played for the program and drowned in Show Low Lake during a July football camp in the small eastern Arizona town.
The death was ruled an accident on Oct. 19, but the tragedy led to the departure of the football coach and athletic director. Once a powerhouse in the Phoenix Union High School District, now the Champions are grinding through a 3-5 season under new coach William “Ducy” Burwell Jr. and athletic director Daniel Dodge.
“A lot of players returned from the summer but just the energy, whole vibe and the want to, just isn’t there how it was like last year in general,” Currie said. “It’s just not the same. We were better than the whole Phoenix Union, but now we’re just back as plain old Chavez. And it’s sad, to be honest.”
Currie could tell the significant impact of Hampton’s death from the stands.
“I feel like with time we can progress and take time to heal those wounds. Honestly, (the game) was poor. It was the first time coming back with new coaches, some rough patches, they’re trying to figure some things out, like I said it’s just going to take time.”
Cesar Chavez coach William Burwell Jr. and assistant coach Clifford Mann did not respond to Cronkite News for an interview request.
Currie says his relationship with Hampton was like a little brother last year, when he was a senior on the varsity team while Hampton was a freshman. Hampton’s upbeat personality was infectious, he says, and Hampton was known for always bringing light to any situation.
But there was also a drive to improve. Currie recalls the times Hampton would ask him and other upperclassmen for advice.
“He was one of the younger guys that just wanted to get better everyday, you know, he always showed admiration for the sport,” Currie said. “We just got to build from what happened, and just know that he is always with us.”
After football practice on July 17, football players from Cesar Chavez left camp to cool off at nearby Show Low Lake.
By Monday evening, Hampton was reported missing to the Navajo County Sheriff’s office. Air support, a dive team and rescue boats were deployed to search for him.
Hampton’s body was discovered in Show Low Lake, and the young teen’s death remains under investigation. The family plans to sue for $50 million to settle,.
Hampton’s death had an immense impact on the whole Arizona high school football community. His story reached high schools across the state. To show support to Chris’s family and Cesar Chavez High School, many high school football programs posted their condolences to Twitter.
However, one school in particular honored Chris in a more special way. Myron Blueford, the varsity football coach at Arizona College Prep, brainstormed the idea to honor Hampton as his team’s honorary captain at the first game of the season.
Blueford immediately thought about his own children and the young people in his football program.
“Being a father myself and having 150 kids in my program, we’re a big relationship-based program. I couldn’t imagine something like this happening to one of my players,” Blueford said. “Really what it came down to is, we’re in an industry of servicing kids and trusted to make sure that they are safe.
“We’re also in a position where there’s only so much we can do in certain situations, you feel kind of vulnerable. I felt for the family, I felt for the program, I felt for his teammates, I wanted to pay some recognition to the young man’s life. It was a meaningful moment and resonated with everyone, you really don’t know when the last time you’re on a football field.”
The pregame honor was heartfelt as four team captains walked toward the middle of the field to greet the opposing captains while holding Hampton’s No. 5 jersey.
Arizona College Prep senior captain Connor Lefevre shares the same number as Hampton, but this season has given his uniform new meaning.
“I felt like I was playing for him (Hampton) that game,” Lefevre said. “That’s my number and we shared that, so we had that connection even though I didn’t know him.”
Like Cesar Chavez, Arizona College Prep had just returned from their summer football training camp when news broke about Hampton’s death.
“It hits close to home because we just got back from camp when that happened. It just shows you how anything can easily happen and you can’t take anything for granted. It felt good to represent Chris and his team,” Lefevre said.
Blueford recalled speaking with surrounding high school varsity football coaches about the tragic story.
“Good friends of mine and coaches, we talk often. So when that happens, the first conversation is remorse. Then it quickly turns into, for every head coach, self-checking,” he said. “We’re thinking about when we go do these things (camps), are we making sure our kids are as protected as they possibly can be?
“I mean it could be anyone. We go to the beach in California, and there’s lifeguards there but we’re 140 (players) deep. Even with lifeguards and coaches wandering around, you turn your head for a second, you know and those can happen,” Blueford said. “There is that fine line, we want to make sure they’re having fun and getting a great experience, but then on the other hand, the responsibility that we have as head coaches is getting our players there and to come home safe. It definitely makes you check that.”
Blueford is one of the many coaches who came together through this tragedy.
“We’re all in this for the same thing,” he said. “We want the best for our kids and we want them to be safe and so when something like this happens, it really hurts everyone and has an impact on everybody, you don’t want to see it but on the positive end, you see there’s a lot of this human stake and what we do, when stuff like this does happen.”
Anthony Simeonov, the CEO of Adrenaline Fundraising Arizona, read Hampton’s story and put himself in the shoes of Hampton’s parents.
Adrenaline Fundraising Arizona helps raise money for 40-50 football programs in Arizona. Active in the football community, Simeonov took his idea to Twitter and wrote a lengthy message from the heart to encourage people to donate to Hampton’s family.
“I have a 12-year-old son, and his story pulled on my heart strings,” Simeonov said. “I thought to myself, ‘What if that were my kid, and what would I want people to do?’ I’d want them to help in any way possible.”
Simeonov describes how he felt “moved to help.” He messaged former Cesar Chavez coach William Chipley, to let him know he was going to start a fundraiser with all proceeds dedicated to Hampton’s family.
Adrenaline Fundraising raises its money through an app that allows users to put in contacts in hope of getting more people to donate. The feature was effective, as evidenced by the buzz Simeonov’s tweet created on social media with 30,000 impressions and about 100 retweets.
Adrenaline Fundraising had the donation open for two weeks and raised $3,500 dollars. Simeonov personally met with Hampton’s mom and sister to give her the donations, with the money helping to fly Hampton’s relatives in for the funeral.
Hampton’s story leaves many coaches and players with concerns about athletic summer camps and the safety of young athletes when they are attending them.
“I would love to see this not happen again, but sometimes it’s unavoidable,” Simeonov said. “You hate to see young people that are thriving, doing all the right things and making all the right decisions for the future of their life to have it just end so abruptly and quickly in such a tragic way.
“We want to do whatever we can to help anyone that needs help. We fundraise and are a profit company, but our morals and ideals line up with helping people; that’s what we do. It’s our business practice to help these teams raise money in a really effective manner.
“We’re always willing to help when someone needs help.”