For the love of Jensen
November 22, 2016
Living in a small community shows how generous individuals and groups are with their time and assistance … especially when the call goes out for help.
Jensen McDonald's untimely and unexpected death in early October surprised many friends and especially his family. During his funeral, hundreds attended the service, many wiping away the tears streaming down their cheeks, others bowing and shaking their heads with bewilderment, asking why such a young 25-year-old man had been taken away before his prime.
McDonald had an intense passion for playing softball and basebal. As an assistant junior varsity coach of the Greenwave baseball program, he refined the skills of incoming freshmen and sophomores. A player himself, he loved the game from when he was a young boy picking up a bat for the first time to his years wearing the green and white for Churchill County High School.
HONORING A FRIEND
To honor his memory, softball players came from as far away as Gardnerville and Yerington to play in a two-day softball tournament to raise funds for Jensen's family; instead, his parents — Jerry and Gloria Frey — donated the money raised during the tournament to the Greenwave baseball program. Timing was important in organizing a tournament. After his funeral at The Gardens, Trevor de Braga and other friends shifted their discussion to having a softball tournament in McDonald's memory.
"We knew it would take a lot to get this going," said de Braga, as he and others waited for the presentation of the check on Sunday. "From being around the softball community, I knew how hard it was to get teams."
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More than one dozen teams expressed interest in playing to raise money in McDonald's memory. Instead, by game time on Saturday, eight teams had signed up. That didn't deter de Braga, who, along with many others, unselfishly gave their time in planning the event for a departed teammate and friend.
"I grew up with Jensen playing baseball," said de Braga, who is the second-year Greenwave wresting coach. "He was one of your buddies on the field. He wanted you to have a smile on your face."
De Braga, who assisted his father with the baseball program, said he saw McDonald daily. He said McDonald was a big part in everyone's life with his joyful spirit and how he was as a person. With the money raised during the weekend and donated to the baseball program, de Braga said the additional funding will help construct an indoor batting facility."
Prior to the presentation, Nicholas Favier of the Oasis Softball Association, his voice choking up, told others including the players from the top two teams about McDonald and how he contributed to the league as a member and friend.
"We're going to do this every year," he said about holding a softball tournament in McDonald's memory. "He was very passionate about softball and passionate about helping."
family's unwavering support
McDonald's stepfather, Jerry Frey, sat solemnly on the chipped green bleachers Saturday before the tournmaent's first pitch. The cool November breeze swept over the field, rustling the loose golden-hue leaves from the trees that lined the northern perimeter of the North Maine Street Park. Frey was sitting with his wife, Gloria, and her family, all waiting to watch the local team play with Jensen's friends. Jerry Frey, though, said he was "taken back" by the tournament and the outpouring of love and friendship.
"There's a word with these community events," Frey said. "Overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed with it."
Frey didn't realize the impact the day and tournament would usher in when he walked by a table with neatly folded white tournament T-shirts for sale.
"That really got to me," he said, holding back a tear.
The entire morning rekindled happy memories of Jensen with his brother, Rhys McDonald. They had a close sibling relationship, shared many of the same interests and loved playing ball on the same team. Yet, Saturday belonged to Jensen McDonald. Frey said he was moved by the efforts of de Braga and others to organize a softball tournament in his stepson's honor.
"What a swell idea," Jerry said in a soft but measured response, his focus shifting toward the field as the first two teams were warming up on the infield.
Gloria Frey said her son loved ball and lived to play ball.
"When Lester (de Braga) called and asked Jensen to help coach the high school JV team, he was in all his glory," she said.
Like Jerry expressed, Gloria said it is amazing to live in a small town that unselfishly helps.
"They got it (the tournament) together in honor of him," she said. "It's blessed to see the town come together like this."
Saturday was a homecoming for many players, some who haven't seen each other for years. Something was special Gloria Frey thought.
"It's funny to see how young people stick together," she said. "They're there for each other."
Younger brother Rhys, who was standing near his parents, said he thought "it was awesome" that others pulled together to organize a tournament in a short amount of time.
"It was kind of surprising," he said. "Fallon has a lot of great people. When something happens, I'm not surprised."
Jensen was 16 months older than Rhys, but he took care of his younger brother. He said every piece of softball gear was either bought, shared or given by him. Their years together were more like a loving, trusting friendship rather than a sibling rivalry.
From their early days of playing together in the Cal Ripen program to Babe Ruth baseball, they encouraged each other; they picked each other up. They played on the A's Babe Ruth team coached by Ken Tye before moving on to the high school. When they played varsity the first time, Rhys was a sophomore, Jensen a junior.
Always a year ahead of his brother, Jensen graduated in 2009 followed by Rhys in 2010.
When Trevor de Braga approached Rhys about the tournament and showed him a flyer, he thought it was a good idea, especially with the baseball team receiving the funds.
Rick Cornu and Jake Morford, both 2006 graduates, were older than the McDonald boys, but they knew them and at one time or another, played ball with them.
"I'd come back from college and run into them," Cornu recollected. "Jensen was the life of the party and always wanted everyone to have a good time. Everyone was smiling and laughing."
Cornu, who played baseball at a junior college before transferring to the University of Utah, said it was special for him to be at the North Maine Street ballpark.
"I wanted to come out and have a good day," he said, "and do something special for Jensen."
Morford remembers talking about the tournament after the funeral services and how receptive the idea resonated. Jensen was a well-like young man, who Morford said, put him before others. Both Morford and Jensen played on the same Babe Ruth team, the Greenwave and also on the Blue Devils traveling team coached by former University of Nevada baseball great, Lyle Walters.
Cornu interjected a thought.
"It's a good time to get everyone together."
Morford, along with others, also remembers how the Freys would come out to every game to support Jensen and Rhys.
Tiffany John not only played with Jensen in softball but also in volleyball at the Venturacci Gym, which he managed in addition to other city of Fallon recreational facilities.
To John, Jensen McDonald was boots: "We'd be playing volleyball in the gym, and we would need an extra player. Boots or not, he would play."
John considered Jensen a close friend, on and off the field, yet when she arrived at the field Saturday, John was ready to play softball to honor her friend.
DEATH TOUCHES ALL
Jensen McDonald's death tremendously affected Mayor Ken Tedford. City services came to a halt, so employees could attend the funeral. Those in attendance could feel Tedford's sorrow.
"Everyone remembers Jensen as being very neat — very orderly — very organized even as a young boy." Tedford said during his eulogy. "This was a trait that carried throughout his life. Rhys remembers going into his room and pulling the sheets and blankets off of Jensen, then running out of the room but not before turning off the light first so he would be harder to catch.
"We all know that baseball was Jensen's true love. Brooke (Jensen's sister) talked of how when her mom was at work she had to have Jensen's and Rhys's uniforms cleaned and ready for them. And Jensen's had to be just right — not so much Rhys's. But Jensen you remember — neat – orderly. Though, there is that baseball photo where he is wearing work boots and jeans."
Tedford said Brooke recalled how the entire family — including "Grammy" — would attend all their baseball and softball games.
"His friend Troy Fillmore told me, often times he would look in the stands at North Maine and there was Jensen's family cheering for their co-ed softball team. This is in 2016. Brooke was right."
Tedford said Jensen's grandmother talked of his great love for his bother.
"A tender, servant heart. And as a small boy always wanting to share with Rhys. To make sure there was enough for Rhys. This continued on as they grew older also … My first thoughts of Jensen go back to when he was 5 years old. He and Rhys first started T-ball at Oats Park with me some 20 years ago.
"It was easy to see the energy that Jensen possessed. But then – there were a lot of 4-6 year olds so perhaps it was just the spark in his eye and the continual tugging on my pants that made me aware I had a friend for a long time. And he had this younger brother we put on the team also, who followed him everywhere that you could not overlook either. The tugging on my pants you wonder – well, that was Jensen wanting to play some more catch. He just loved baseball. You see, I knew Gloria and she wanted those boys on my team and years later I was sure happy I had Jensen and Rhys as friends.
"One fall, Dave Munoz and I took a bunch of boys who weren't playing football and made a fall baseball team and called them the Fallon Tomcats. They ranged from ages 12 or so down. I think Jensen and Kenny were 12. Well, Dylan (Tedford) was like 8 and a bit shy of the ball. Rhys, of course, was there. I remember Jensen's dad Dave was in the dugout. Dylan was batting against big Trent Blackwater, a 12-year-old pitcher. He hit Dylan in the arm. I glare at Dylan to stay in the batter box as every dad should. Dave Munoz winks at this little guy … it is okay to leave the box.
Before I know it, he is sitting on Jensen's dad Dave's lap in the dugout. You may wonder where I am headed with this story. The next thing I see is Jensen headed to the dugout to check on Dylan. This boy had a tender heart.
"I can't impress upon you here today how important a part Jensen McDonald has played in the lives of the children of Fallon the past few years that he has worked directly with them. I can also not impress upon you more the vacuum that has been left for children by the tragic passing of Jensen McDonald. Jensen would ask us to fill that void.
"There is a great hole in the City of Fallon Family. We mourn the loss of Jensen McDonald individually and as a group. In all the years I have known Jensen, including working with him as a colleague at the City, he never drifted from being sensitive, caring, kind, loving, warmhearted and the sweet soul I knew that very first day we met.
Tedford ended his eulogy from the great 19th-century author Washington Irving: "There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love."