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Hundreds turn out for funeral of Washington teen

Scott Hilyard

Sensing the heaviness of the hearts of the hundreds of teenagers he faced, the Rev. Joseph Donton looked for a couple of laughs in the homily he delivered at the funeral Mass for 18-year-old Evan Knoblauch on Thursday.

To make the point about the impermanence of life he reminded the teens that body parts sag over time and youthful heads of hair go bald. They laughed in spite of their sorrow.

Then:

"Rejoice because (Evan) is in heaven," Donlon, the parish priest of St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, told an overflow crowd of mourners who over-filled the pristine Caterpillar Performing Arts Center inside the new Five Points Washington community center. "And that, my friends, is forever."

Knoblauch was a senior at Washington High School, the leading rusher and captain of its football team, a speech team orator, a wrestler, track athlete and a member of the school’s competitive cheer squad. He died Saturday when the car he was driving struck a tree in rural Woodford County while he was on his way to help his grandmother wash her car. Classes at the high school were cancelled Thursday.

From the beginning, planners of Five Points Washington envisioned the facility as a community gathering place. But not this way. Not for this purpose. The 852 seats on the floor and the balcony of the barely broken-in performing arts center were not enough to sit all who attended Thursday’s two-hour funeral Mass. Another couple of hundred people lined the walls and filled aisles and hallways.

The stage was transformed into the altar of a Catholic Church. A stunning display of flowers from mourners, including a white-petaled jersey with Knoblauch’s number 2 on it and a couple of arrangements that formed an orange Washington "W" symbol, filled the front of the altar from one end of the stage to the other.

His football teammates filed in after everyone else had been seated, the varsity in their black jerseys, the younger players in orange. They filled three of the first five rows. Knoblauch’s parents and their younger son sat two feet from the casket in front-row center seats and accepted hugs and handshakes as the football players passed in front of them.

Knoblauch was too active, too mischievous and too much of a prankster to be eulogized as a saint. Family friend Kevin Chase recalled a signature moment at a football skills camp Knoblauch attended last summer. Knoblauch impressed one college coach with a string of strong runs in a scrimmage. Here’s how Chase described an exchange between Knoblauch and the coach:

"What’s your G.P.A., son," the coach asked.

"I’m a senior, coach," he responded.

"Not what class you’re in, your grade point average," the coach said.

"Oh. Not good, coach. Not good."

"Growing up with Evan was an adventure, a testing of limits" Chase said. "You never knew where you were going to go."

Washington High School football coach Darrell Crouch remembered Knoblauch as a tough-as-nails football player with a generous heart and blinding smile.

"He could come into a room and change the way everybody feels," he said.

After Eric Clapton’s poignant "Tears in Heaven" produced real tears on Earth, the football team left first to line the hallway that led outside where the hearse awaited.

Next came the casket that held Knoblauch’s body, the white pall removed to reveal an orange Washington "W" with a prowling Washington Panther at the bottom and an orange "2" at the top. His parents and brother held on to each other as they trailed the casket. Along both walls of the hallway Knoblauch’s teammates fought for composure with varying degrees of success. Eyes reddened and teared, noses ran, lower lips trembled. Green Day’s "Time of Your Life" played loudly through a sound system. An occasional mom or dad broke ranks from the flow of mourners toward the doors to touch a football player’s hand, grip a shoulder or initiate a full-on embrace.

Students, teachers and staff filed into one of 13 school buses commissioned to make the drive to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Metamora. Several hundred people made the trip to the cemetery and crowded around the canopy that covered the family and the grave.

Prayers were recited. The gathering was invited to the high school for lunch or to St. Patrick’s for fellowship. The sky continued to darken as the football players lined up to each place a single flower on top of their teammate’s casket. The line moved slowly.

The day’s first drops of rain began to fall in the form of cold sprinkles as the students left the grave site and somberly, wordlessly, walked the paths of the small, quiet cemetery to board the idling yellow buses for the short ride back to Washington High School.

Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or at shilyard@pjstar.com.