Sam Hesselberg played an aggressive hockey game for Palmer on Monday and came back with a quality skate in practice the next day. He seemed healthy and had no complaints.
For his winter break, Hesselberg planned to finish the paperwork for entrance into golf course management at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. All that remained was a certified handicap, and Terrors golf coach Jason Kohl was helping Hesselberg complete it.
Then, without warning, the charismatic three-sport athlete was gone, dead at 17 of an apparent brain aneurysm.
About one hundred of his friends and teammates gathered at Memorial Hospital late into the night Friday, first for support and then to say good-bye. Hundreds more gathered outside his family’s home Saturday evening to remember the senior and try to make sense of the tragic turn of events.
“I don’t think that Sam ever had a bad day in his life,” said Hesselberg’s father, Steven, the principal at District 11’s Edison Elementary, addressing the crowd of mourners holding candles in front of the family home on Tejon Street. “We’re really going to miss him.”
Hesselberg’s mother found Sam unconscious on the home’s bathroom floor at about 4 p.m. Friday and he was rushed to Memorial Hospital. The family took him off life support early Saturday after an older brother arrived from California to see Sam one last time.
He was pronounced dead at 8:25 a.m.
News spread quickly. Moments of silence were observed at several area high school events, Facebook was filled with messages and Palmer immediately postponed Monday’s hockey game to an undetermined date.
“What’s going on right now in Colorado Springs in relationship to Sam is a testament to his character,” Palmer hockey coach Bob Davidson said. “He didn’t meet anybody that wasn’t ultimately a friend. I think every school in the Springs probably has got somebody who’s met Sam, through the golf team, hockey team, baseball team, whatever ... What he was, he was a magnet.”
His magnetism was evident by the turnout at his house, where friends left hand-written notes of their favorite memories, signed baseballs and lingered in the sub-freezing temperatures, unsure what should come next.
“This doesn’t seem real,” friend and teammate Jeff Doersch said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Though Hesselberg played hockey — where his three goals rank second for the Terrors — and baseball, it was in golf that he really stood out. Last week he was named a second-team Peak Performer selection after placing third in the 5A Metro League.
“I don’t know how many times I was approached by coaches who just wanted to compliment me on what a great kid Sam was,” said Kohl, who coached Hesselberg for four years in golf, taught him in two classes and said he was like a second son. “His demeanor, his conduct, the way he dealt with the other kids and even the coaches when they would be around. That that was Sam Hesselberg. He was just a great kid.”
The Palmer hockey team played Friday night at Heritage High School in Denver, leaving for the trip shortly after learning Hesselberg had been taken to the hospital but before learning his condition.
By the end of the game, enough text messages had come through that players knew the situation was dire. Rather than returning to the school, the team bus took the players directly to the hospital when they arrived back in town around midnight.
“They all had a chance to say goodbye to Sam,” Davidson said.
Davidson said Hesselberg showed no indications of a head injury, never missing time nor complaining of pain or dizziness. He doesn’t believe the aneurysm was related to Hesselberg’s participation in the sport.
Steven Hesselberg, stoic in speaking to the crowd of friends and supporters, said an autopsy was ordered to attempt to explain the bleeding on his son’s brain. He pointed out that Sam was an organ donor and he hopes to one day meet with the recipients.
“He’ll live on though them,” Hesselberg said.
A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Palmer High School Auditorium.
The Gazette’s Scott Kaniewski contributed to this story