Preserving Brandon's spirit from the stands

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

The Juneau-Douglas High School gym will be full of wrestlers, coaches, parents and fans for this weekend's region meet. But there will be someone missing.

He could have been in the mix at 171 pounds. Possibly 160. Or maybe he would have wrestled at 189 - up a weight class, as he liked to do. But without a doubt, had a car accident not claimed Brandon Pilot's life a little more than two years ago, he would have been providing senior leadership - probably as a co-captain - for the Crimson Bears wrestling team Saturday.

Would he have been a region champion? A state champion? At the time of the accident Brandon's future was bright, on and off the mat. His friends and family - particularly his parents, Art and Linda - were left to wonder where life would have taken him.

But while the Pilots always will think of what might have been, that hasn't diminished their capacity to acknowledge, and to support, what remains.

The Pilots, like so many parents of young athletes, devoted countless hours and days to watching practices, meets, games, tournaments and the like. Wherever Brandon was on the mat or on the field - no matter how long - chances are his parents were cheering him on from the stands.

"We sat in the bleachers for nine and a half hours and watched him wrestle 10 minutes," Art recalled earlier this month about one wrestling meet.

Brandon was introduced to wrestling in grade school in Ketchikan, but it didn't really stick at the time. Soon after, the family moved to Juneau, where he took up a variety of other sports at one time or another. Soccer, baseball - he had a lot of interests, but there was always some sport in Brandon's life.

Wrestling took a back seat for a few years, until Brandon entered Floyd Dryden Middle School and joined the team there. He won the Southeast title, and went to the state middle school championship during his years at Dryden.

The confidence he gained from wrestling opened other doors; Brandon soon joined the football team and continued with both sports as he entered high school.

Brandon did not wrestle on the high school team his freshman year due to the football team's schedule. But he continued in the off-season and joined the Crimson Bears in fall 2000, his sophomore year. He was popular among teammates and opponents alike.

"When he'd wrestle guys, they always seemed to like him - even when he beat them," said Crimson Bear wrestling coach Bob Mahon, who coached Brandon in high school and club wrestling.

In the summer and fall of 2000, Mahon said, he noticed that Brandon was starting to take more responsibility for himself, to be more thoughtful, mature. Mahon said he and Brandon had a disagreement on a road trip that season - one that caused Brandon to storm away.

"He came back and said, 'you were right, I was wrong,'" Mahon said. "He was becoming a young man, not a young boy."

One of his school assignments at that time was to write a paragraph about his job in life.

"He was starting to get it all figured out," Art said, remembering how Brandon had detailed his duty to get good grades so he could keep wrestling and playing football. "He ended that paragraph with, 'My jobs aren't that hard.'"

Brandon never had the chance to complete his jobs, his life's work. On Nov. 18, 2000, he died in a car crash on Fish Creek Road near Eaglecrest Ski Area.

His death early on that Saturday rocked his family and the school. At the time, a school counselor said, "this has been the most devastated I have seen our student body."

One thing that helped the Pilots through those first days and the funeral was hearing how Brandon's peers held him in such high regard. Then it was suggested they might attend a home wrestling meet scheduled the next weekend to be among friends.

"It's where he would have been if he were alive, where we would have been if he were alive," Art said.

So, after a lot of soul-searching, they steeled themselves to set foot in the gym, to take a seat in the familiar bleachers, to just be there - for the team, and for themselves. And the Crimson Bears, riding on a rush of mixed emotions, delivered a victory over 10 other teams.

"We were really, really proud of the kids at that first tournament," Linda said. "They pulled their inner strength out. It would have been so easy for them to give up."

"When they turned around and saw you sitting there, they stood tall," said Mahon, sitting in on the conversation. "It was a big thing seeing you there."

"It was rough - but it was part of the healing process," Linda said. "It helped."

And ever since, the Pilots have been at just about every home wrestling match and football game where Brandon would have competed. While being in the gym or at the stadium inevitably dredges up memories that test their emotions, they've kept going to keep Brandon's memory alive, and to provide support and inspiration to his teammates as they continue on a journey that, for Brandon, was cut short.

The Pilots also have provided some financial assistance to the football and wrestling teams. Perhaps the most visible example of this is the now-familiar Brandon Pilot Cannon, which debuted in the fall 2001 football season and is shot after every Crimson Bear touchdown. They said the noise and celebration surrounding the cannon epitomizes Brandon's spirit.

And they received some reciprocity from the teams. The Crimson Bear football program dedicated the 2001 season to Brandon, and the wrestling squad named its annual Thanksgiving meet the Brandon Pilot Invitational.

Brandon would have been a senior this year, which alone is cause for more reflecting than usual. But at the same time, it also means that Brandon's teammates and classmates are on their way out of high school - many on their way out of town to college and other pursuits. There are fewer people around who knew Brandon first-hand; in some ways time is dimming his memory.

And while people still drop by to see the Pilots - visits that are greatly appreciated - the frequency has started to wane.

"We don't have as many visitors any more; the kids don't come over as much," Linda said. "They're moving on - they should be."

But they said they are glad to see his memory preserved in the football team's touchdown cannon, and in the annual wrestling tournament that bears his name.

The Pilots will not be in the stands this weekend; they will be away at a prior commitment. But they were planning to leave a note to be read to the team and, without question, the team will carry thoughts of the Pilots and of Brandon as they enter competition.

Senior co-captain Isaac Cadiente is one of the few Crimson Bear wrestlers left who was on the team with Brandon. He said the wrestlers are always aware, and appreciative, of the Pilots' presence at their home meets.

"It's great having them there at every meet," he said. "Brandon was a big part of wrestling, his parents were a big part of wrestling. ...

"I respect them and love them for coming to all our meets. It pushes everyone, motivates them, gives them something to work for. ... I know it's difficult for them to (attend meets). Brandon should be there, he should be winning. I love them for being able to come, to do that for us."

• Andrew Krueger can be reached at

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