Dealing with the totally unanticipated death of a close friend, family member or loved one creates a burden that, ironically, may take on a life of its own.
Dante Garcia’s family, friends and Coast Union classmates, tragically, are going through that very tough grieving process. And so are the friends and family members of Kiernan Hopkins, class of 2006 at Coast Union, who passed away July 30 in San Diego at age 27.
Wisdom through poetry and song — if just for a few lines — can lift the grieving person a bit higher, up and out of those sorrowful moments. Poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote, “I cannot say, and I will not say, that he is dead. He is just away … he has wandered into an unknown land.”
In his lyrically superb song, “For a Dancer,” Jackson Browne wrote: “I don’t know what happens when people die / Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try / It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear / That I can’t sing / I can’t help listening.”
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As to Kiernan, when I wrote about his life in last week’s Cambrian, I quoted coaches and friends, but I wasn’t able to use all of the loving thoughts of those I reached.
In fact, I reached out to coach Jim Harbaugh, who was Kiernan’s football mentor at the University of San Diego. After Kiernan’s terrific Coast Union football career (he caught 87 passes for 1,448 yards and crossed the goal line 16 times his senior year), Harbaugh personally recruited him to play in San Diego in 2006.
Harbaugh, a high-profile sports figure who coached at Stanford and took the 49ers to a Super Bowl his second year in San Francisco — compiling a 36-11 record his first three years in the NFL — is now coaching his alma mater, the University of Michigan.
In preparing the Kiernan story last week, I placed three fruitless calls to the athletic department at the University of Michigan. The receptionist sent me to the voicemail box of “the person who deals with these requests.” Receiving no response, I gave up.
But Brian DeBelle, Kiernan’s colleague at High Rank Websites, where Kiernan had recently received a promotion, located Harbaugh’s email address through the coach’s Twitter profile.
I’m not a Twitter guy, so I wouldn’t have had access to that angle, though an item on my personal bucket list is to transition out of my stubborn old-school patterns and join the digital revolution.
DeBelle got an email back from Harbaugh: “I am deeply saddened on the passing of a friend, ally and teammate Kiernan Hopkins,” Harbaugh wrote. “As I have grown older, I do not remember the games and scores, but I remember the players and the sacrifices they made in order to play football at the University of San Diego.”
Harbaugh went on: “My thoughts and prayers go out to Kiernan’s family and friends on the loss of my teammate, our teammate. He will be missed.”
While I didn’t know Kiernan personally, I interviewed him several times. Once when Harbaugh took the Stanford job and another time when Harbaugh became the 49er coach. I also interviewed Kiernan for a homecoming story in the Cambrian.
In that interview, he said, “I really enjoyed football because I was playing with guys I had played sports with since first grade. I liked the attention we got because in comparison to other schools, we were small, but we were good. The loyalty of the fans that came out to watch us at home was great.”
Kiernan’s offensive coordinator at Coast Union, Charlie Casale, remembers Kiernan’s upbeat attitude.
“When players complained about being roughed up, Kiernan would say this in the huddle: ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s football.’ Kiernan was fun to coach — a great kid.”
Baseball mentor Andy Stevens coached Kiernan four years and called Kiernan’s junior year “incredible” — on the mound in 2005, Kiernan struck out 58 batters in 50.1 innings; at the plate, he hit .307. But in Kiernan’s senior year he hit .342 and led the team with 30 RBI. His pitching stats were eye-openers: He was 5-4 with a miniscule ERA of 1.41; he struck out 89 batters and allowed just 28 hits in 69.1 innings; opposing batters hit a paltry .119 against him.
“Everyone else on team needed defined roles … but coaching Kiernan all those years and trusting him the way I did, I could put him anywhere in the lineup or the field, and use him as a conduit to sew up our chemistry,” Stevens said.
As to Kiernan’s creative family, I am acquainted with his mother, Monie Hopkins, a loyal Bronco fan who owns two clothing shops in the West Village (New Moon and Half Moon). I’m also acquainted with his father Brent Hopkins, a registered nurse and chiropractor, who worked at Atascadero State Hospital. He actually rode his bicycle from Cambria to ASH for several years.
Themes of community, healthy living and positive energy radiate in powerful ripples from the Hopkins family to those whose lives they touch.
I saw Brent Hopkins recently as he was moving a horse named “Pony Boy” that he built out of driftwood into the Patrick Gallery in the West Village. Around the corner from the gallery is another equestrian-themed example of his driftwood handiwork — “Big Sir.”
In Browne’s “For a Dancer,” he references the doubts we face and the hope we must embrace even in times of grief and broken hearts.
“Perhaps a better day is drawing near / Just as easy, it could all disappear / Along with whatever meaning you may have found / Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around / Go and make a joyful sound.”
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at email@example.com.