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Candlelight vigil provides crystal clear perspective to weekend

I stood up against the wall painted with an American flag Saturday night and silently wept.In front of me, scores of people held candles and listened to several speakers remember the much-too-short life of Sterling Koehn and raise awareness of the tragedy that is child abuse and neglect.The night before, I watched my oldest son play the last football game of his high school career, and when it was over, I had a difficult time coming to terms that Josh would never wear No. 34 again for the Chickasaws and that he and his “little brother,” Noah, may never be teammates again.I won’t lie. It was difficult to watch my boys and their friends shed tears and embrace each other one final time.When I got into my car Friday night, I looked at my phone and the dozens of pictures I had taken with it.I found one of Josh walking all alone on the field where he’s had so much fun and, yes, enjoyed so much success as a high school football player.I put it on Facebook with the caption, “Maybe the hardest picture I’ve ever taken.”Now, less than 24 hours later, I was standing in the small town of Alta Vista as area residents tried to come to terms with what happened a little more than two months ago in this quaint, quiet town.You know the story of how sheriff’s deputies and rescue personnel were called to an apartment, where they found the lifeless body of Sterling.You know what happened on Oct. 25, when little Sterling’s parents were arrested and charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death.You know the details — like how Sterling weighed less than seven pounds, how the CSI folks determined he hadn’t been removed from the child swing in a week and how his body and clothing contained maggots.And as I stood there on Saturday and tried to do my job — taking pictures and writing notes — I realized that what had happened the night before had immediately been put into perspective.There’s nothing wrong with the tears those boys shared or the sadness they felt on Friday night. They had poured their hearts and souls into a football season few people could imagine when New Hampton held its first practice back in August.They can take the lessons they learned playing football and use them for the rest of their lives. Life is the ultimate team game. Teamwork matters. So does dedication. So does hard work. So does picking yourself up when you’ve fallen to the ground.I have written this often, but I believe that high school sports — really, all high school activities — are a critical part of education.The most important part? Certainly not, but as a guy who played sports, who played or at least tried to play an instrument, who was in speech and who was in plays, I can tell you I still use those lessons to this day.Still, it’s a game.The sun did come up on Saturday. Life marched on.And then Saturday night came, and the tears that filled my eyes came from the realization that it isn’t always so. Life doesn’t always march on, and Sterling Koehn proves it.As I talked to people Saturday night, they told me they were angry, but they wanted to find hope and healing at the candlelight vigil, and I realized that I, too, was angry that something like this could happen to the most defenseless — our children — among us.Yet, I found hope in Alta Vista Saturday night.On a cold, damp evening, scores of people turned out. That was something.So, too, was the idea that we can’t let this happen again. Exactly how we make sure it doesn’t happen again I’m not sure, but we started the conversation that night.As I close this column, though, I realize what I’d like more than anything is this: I’d like for me or anyone 17 years from now to be able to take a picture of Sterling Koehn walking off a football field or playing in the band for the last time.And unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.We, as we were reminded often Saturday evening, can’t change the past. We can’t bring Sterling back.But we were also told that we can change the future, and even if you don’t believe it, try anyway. Do it for Sterling Daniel Koehn. 

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