I did not know Gaius Vaenuku, the 18-year-old incoming freshman defensive lineman at Utah, nor any of the others killed or injured in a Monday night rollover crash on a lonely stretch of New Mexico highway.
But I have a close friend Lance Pierce, of Keller, Texas who knew Gaius. They didn't live in the same neighborhood, but they lived in the same general area, and Lance crossed paths with Gaius on a fairly regular basis. They knew one another from attending the same greater LDS Church congregation and from being involved together in that congregation's sports programs. Lance called Tuesday to tell me that he's a better man for having had that privilege, that Gaius was an exceptional kid. Not a kid that's exceptional in hindsight because he now is so tragically gone. But a truly extraordinary young person who stood out from almost everybody else in the way he lived his life, the way he loved life, the way he played sports, the way he loved sports, the way he cared about those around him.
"He grew up quick," Lance said. "He was huge at the age of 12. I think he was shaving at 11. There are a lot of big kids, but he was athletic, too. He could move. He was fast, so fast for his size. As he grew older, he grew bigger and faster. He could have ended up playing college basketball, but football was his game. He would have been great at Utah.
"He was a good-looking kid who lit up a room when he came into it. If you saw him, you noticed his size, but just as much his personality. Everybody was drawn to him. Didn't matter if you were Tongan or white, whatever. Every kid loved this guy. He was a serious athlete, a kid who competed with everything he had. But he kept sports in perspective. He was always the leader in sports, in church, with his friends.
"On the field, on the court, he was an intense kid. But once a game was over, it was over. He just sort of got what was most important. He was mature beyond his years. Other kids would have been attracted to him if he were just a great football player, but he was also a warm, genuine person. All the kids loved Keio."
Keio [pronounced K-O] was Gaius' middle name, and it was the name by which everyone knew him.
"When you're a part of a church basketball league, you need volunteers," Lance said. "A lot of kids would just play in the games and, afterward, take off. Keio stuck around and helped with the other games. He'd keep the scorebook.
"Once, he stayed to help score a girls' basketball game, girls who were maybe about 13. One girl got knocked down and badly injured her ankle. As soon as it happened, big Keio ran out on the basketball floor, gently picked her up and carried her over to her parents. Here's this huge young man holding, taking care of this little girl. It was real nice, a nice moment, something I'll remember."
Another happy moment for Keio came in a church basketball game in March, when he hit the game-winning shot for his ward team from Euless against a talented team from Southlake.
"Nobody thought Keio's team could win that game," Lance said. "He was playing for a team with a bunch of football players going up against that team from Southlake that had at least three high school varsity basketball players on it. When his long shot went in to win the thing, Keio ran around the gym celebrating. Everybody but the team he beat smiled at that because everybody loved Keio. You would have thought he just won the state football championship, something he had actually done as a freshman at Trinity High School in Euless."
Sometimes, life is too hard to understand.
Too, too cruel.
I don't pretend to know why the exceptional ones so often, it seems, are taken out of this existence so early, ripped away with so much to look forward to and live for. But … one was taken Monday night on that lonely stretch of highway.
"Keio was one of the best kids I've ever known," Lance said. "He was something extraordinary. Something special."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.