He was, quite simply, as nice a kid as you'd ever want to meet.
He was smart and funny and polite and filled with a sense of adventure and joy. His smile was the kind that made you think you weren't really getting the joke. He was the kind of kid everybody wanted to hang with.
When he opened the door that Friday night and walked into the party, he spent 10 minutes shaking hands and slapping backs and saying hello to his friends and classmates from Air Academy High School.
He was 17 years old.
And although he didn't know it, Brandon Schwartz was really saying goodbye.
Five days later, inside a Colorado Springs church that seemed like it might burst with grief and unfathomable sorrow, his friends gathered again. Hundreds of them. They were locked in a struggle with heartache, a struggle they had no chance of winning -- because the kid who laughed and smiled and made them all feel better about themselves had died.
So many, so many
In the United States, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 20. Of every five teen deaths in our country, two are the result of crashes. Last year 3,657 drivers in that age group were killed in accidents on America's roadways.
In Colorado, the numbers are equally grim. According to a 2000 study by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, of 100 teenage drivers in our state, 28 will be involved in a crash and 13 of them will be injured. And one will die.
This year, Ponderosa High School, north of Colorado Springs in Parker, has lost five students in car crashes. Three classmates died in June when a car driven by Todd Stansfield at an estimated 90 mph on a country road plowed into an oncoming car, also killing the driver of that vehicle. Stansfield has been charged with four counts of vehicular homicide and was, this month, ordered to stay away from his high school.
In July, Ponderosa student Michael Hoff, 16, was killed when he lost control of his car and collided with a cement-mixing truck.
Other schools have been hit hard, too.
In 2003, three Chatfield High students were killed in a single crash when the driver lost control. Eight students were in the car.
In March of this year, two teens were killed in a crash on westbound C-470 near Denver. On the same day, a 16-year-old Dakota Ridge High student was killed when his car left the road and hit two trees.
In May, two Berthoud High students were killed during an off-campus lunch break in which students were drinking beer. The teenage driver was legally drunk.
In October, a Westminster High sophomore driver lost control of a car and ran off the road, killing one of her four passengers. The same month saw the death of three teenage boys in the eastern Colorado farm town of Akron. They were riding in a pickup truck on a dirt road. And on Oct. 9, a Legacy High football player was killed in a car crash while racing another car -- filled with football teammates -- in Westminster.
Good choices, bad choices
And then there's this: Nationally, in 2003, 25 percent of the drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 who died in crashes had a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher -- considered legally drunk in nearly all states. Of all traffic fatalities in the country that year -- 42,643 of them -- a stunning 40 percent involved drivers who had some alcohol in their system.
Schwartz made a lot of good choices in his short life. He worked hard at baseball and golf and lettered in both at St. Mary's High, where he went to school for his freshman and sophomore years, and at Air Academy, where he went to school as a junior and senior.
He was a camp counselor and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He wanted to be a teacher.
But at that party on Friday night, Nov. 12, a good kid made a terrible mistake. He had a few drinks.
In the week before his death, all Air Academy High students were forced to listen to safe driving lectures. Drinking and driving was a major topic.
And according to results of an Academy School District 20 survey released just a few days before Schwartz died, the number of high school seniors in the district who drank alcohol had risen 2 percent from the previous year, to 80 percent. School districts across the city, state and country report similar findings.
At about 11:30 that night, on a quiet road inside the Kissing Camels Estates and just two blocks from his home, Schwartz's car left the road, turned sideways and hit a tree. And just like that, a life so happy and so good and so filled with joy was over. Two young sisters lost their big brother. Dave and Shelly Schwartz lost their son.
Hundreds lost a friend.
And the world lost someone who made it better.
Eternal youth and immortality
"Don't make that mistake," the Rev. Bill Carmody of Corpus Christi Catholic Church begged the estimated 500 teenagers at the memorial service. "Don't put yourself in that situation."
Words that generations of teenagers have ignored.
Nineteenth-century German author Jean Paul Richter wrote this: "Death gives us sleep, eternal youth and immortality."
I went to the funeral on that awful day. My stepson is a senior at Air Academy. Brandon was his friend. And my son, a sophomore at the school, played baseball with Brandon.
And when I think about the long, long line of young friends who passed by his casket in the church that day, the seemingly endless line of friends that Brandon Joseph Schwartz left behind, it's their belief in that immortality thing that I worry about.
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