Thomas Stone High School football coach Rich Callahan called sophomore manager Russell "Leon" Lyles Jr. "my extra set of eyes," and often turned to ask Lyles his opinion of certain plays. Cougars senior co-captain Robert Pepper remembered listening to coaches yell at players in practice--then, seconds later, hearing Lyles offer the athlete encouraging words.
Just about everybody at Thomas Stone said that once they talked to Lyles, they forgot he was in a wheelchair, and had been since he was born paralyzed from the neck down. They also said they never will forget Lyles, who died Wednesday of injuries sustained when he apparently lost control of his wheelchair and crashed into the bleachers of the school's gymnasium.
Lyles, 15, left indelible memories for the faculty, students and school employees. Callahan remembered how the manager would attend every practice and every game, regardless of the time or weather.
"When it rained, he would not want an umbrella. He wanted to get soaking wet like the coaches and players," Callahan said. "I had to go up behind him, open my umbrella and put it in the back of his wheelchair so he would not get sick."
Beth Gorby was Lyles's science teacher. She also wore the Cougars' mascot outfit for the team's final five football games, including the 41-0 loss to top-ranked Seneca Valley in the Maryland 3A championship game.
"During the state title game, I would go over to Leon and shake my head, since it was not going too well," Gorby said. "And Leon would tell me, 'It is not over yet, Mrs. Gorby. We still have a chance.' He would run over to me before every possession and say, 'We are going to score right now.' "
Lyles loved sports. When he was not attending football or basketball practices (he served as team manager for the junior varsity boys team last year and was planning to do so again this winter), he was doing homework while watching ESPN. He told teachers and friends he wanted to be a sports broadcaster or sportswriter.
On the field, Callahan and assistant football coach Kevin Heider said Lyles "was like an extra set of eyes" for the coaching staff. Coaches and players must stay between the 30-yard lines on the sidelines, but Lyles wasn't limited by the rule.
"We would send Leon down near the goal line to watch plays from there and tell us what happened," Heider said. "He would come back and say, 'So-and-so got blown off the line.' Sometimes after practice, he would come up to us and tell us one of the players seemed depressed. 'You should go talk to him,' he would say. He also knew every stat from every county player. He had a phenomenal sports knowledge."
The team made certain Lyles was in the middle of every pregame huddle, and he said the final words of inspiration before the team took the field. His mere presence, of course, was an inspiration.
"You never saw him without a smile on his face," said sophomore Christina Myers, who had known Lyles since they were in the sixth grade. "Everyone knew who he was and everyone really liked him. He was just sweet all the time. He never complained about anything."
Or, as Henry Jamieson, a teacher and assistant football coach, said: "Once you talked to him, you forgot he was in a wheelchair. He may not have been in a strong body, but that never stopped him. He never let his condition hold him back."
Soon after Lyles's death was announced at the school Thursday morning, many students met in the cafeteria and wrote down their favorite memories of Lyles. The memories will be compiled into a book for his parents.
But some of the memories from the football team, basketball team and other students were combined into a speech that was to be read at a candlelight memorial service Friday night. In part, the speech from the football team said:
"We are happy because we know you are in a better place and are free. Free from your wheelchair. Free to run like [Thomas Stone All-Met running back] Marcus Whalen, free to hit like [starting linebacker] Mike Farland and free to talk trash after you've done it like [starting running back] Mike Finamore. . . . We cherish every moment we had with you and will always love you."