That night is forever etched in my memory.
Five years ago tonight I was working a Tonawanda Warriors soccer game at the original Clinton H. Small Stadium.
I was sitting next to then Tonawanda News sports editor, Brandon Koch. It was just a normal night covering high school sports. Then, suddenly, everything stopped.
Koch was searching Twitter and saw a post from former Tonawanda News sports editor Ernie Green expressing his sadness over the death of Chris “Mr. Tonawanda” Slauson.
The reaction was disbelief. I said what!? P.A. man, Jeff Schultz, said “Come on, you gotta be kidding?!”
But it was all too real. Now, five years later, it’s still hard to process that Chris is no longer with us.
The news spread like wildfire over social media and within the tiny tight-knit community of Tonawanda that Chris and his family called home.
Chris, who had turned 33 just five days earlier, was simply the kindest, most loving, caring soul you could ever hope to meet. A fixture at all Tonawanda athletic events, his biggest loves were Warriors basketball, football and baseball. But while most saw Chris as a passionate supporter of Warrior athletics he was so much more. His love for the City of Tonawanda was rivaled by no one. As he posted on his Facebook, “I love to be out in the community of the City of Tonawanda.” He said it and he meant it.
One of his happiest moments came during a board meeting when he was officially recognized as “Mr. Tonawanda”; not that there was ever a doubt the title was his.
An estimated 1,000 well-wishers came to pay respects to Chris during his wake. On the day of his funeral it seemed as if all of Tonawanda shutdown so it could pay respects to it’s special son.
Chris and his younger brother Paul were raised in the City of Tonawanda by their loving parents, Howard and Mary Slauson.
A Class of 1998 graduate, Chris was among the first special needs students to be mainstreamed in Tonawanda High School.
It wasn’t always easy for Chris, especially early on. On his first day at THS some less-than-kind students saw Chris as an easy target and tried to take advantage of him. That’s when another student, Aaron Lepsch, stepped in. Raised the right way, Aaron was the kind of kid who would always stand up for others. A member of the football team, Aaron was clearly able to handle himself in any situation. He came to Chris’ side and made it clear to the kids bothering Chris, mess with him and you’re messing with me. They backed off and a lifelong friendship was formed in that instance.
I’ll never forget the sight of Aaron Lepsch arriving at Chris’ wake. He placed his Tonawanda football jersey inside the coffin. Aaron said a prayer, then gently grabbed his friend’s arm as he said his final goodbye.
When he got home from school and his family asked how that first day went, Chris told them how some kids were bothering him. Outraged, Paul Slauson asked who it was? And was ready to fight the world to protect his brother. Chris smiled and casually said, “It’s ok. My friend Aaron took care of it.”
To this day that is what still amazes me the most about Chris. His kind, forgiving heart. Didn’t matter what you said or did to him. Didn’t matter what health issues or ups and downs fate dealt him, Chris never had a negative word to say about anyone.
If Chris called you a friend, you were his friend for life. He took such pride in every facet of his home town. Especially the kids at THS. If a kid’s name appeared in the paper Chris would send him/her a copy to make sure they had that keepsake. If he knew your birthday, you’d always get a card from him.
As time went on Chris’ classmates began to see what everyone saw. What a good, kind person he was. You just couldn’t help but love him. During his time at THS Chris became known as a passionate supporter of all the athletes and sports teams. After he graduated, well, his legend grew even stronger. More and more kids and student-athletes got to know Chris. You would have been hard pressed to find someone who didn’t think the world of Chris. They all realized how lucky they were to have such a die-hard fan.
That was the most intriguing thing about Chris’ funeral lunch. Seeing all of his peers from the 1990s talking so affectionately about him and lamenting how sad it was the current kids didn’t know how great Chris was. But they did. The day after Chris passed away, students Brian McCarthy and Brian Liebel, who were the leaders of the student pep group called “The Tribe” and fellow student Mike Tolsma, visited the Slausons. They gave Howard and Mary the group’s “Swag Flag” that was waved at every game. It was their way of saying how much they loved Chris. How much he was part of their group. How much they would miss him.
As I walked to THS on Wednesday to cover games, thoughts of Chris raced through my mind. How much I enjoyed talking to him. How he could always make you smile. How he was the kind of person we should all strive to be. How much I missed him. And how sad it is that today’s Tonawanda student-athletes never got to experience the magic and charm of “Mr. Tonawanda.” To know that no matter what the odds are or what the scoreboard read, Chris always believed in you. He always believed in Tonawanda.
To this day whenever I cover a Tonawanda sporting event there is a part of me that still expects, and hopes, to see my friend sitting in his normal spots. But I know that won’t happen.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, THS games just aren’t the same without you, my man. We miss you every day. Keep watching over the kids.