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Remembering her son, Tammy Jessen says, “I think of this big, huge, tall kid with a big huge smile.” At 16 years old, 6-foot-7 Jesse Jessen towered over his classmates. Tammy says “his goal was to reach 7 foot.” Being a tall kid with bright, red hair earned him the nicknames of “big red” and “hoodoo” after the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. As the oldest of five children, Jesse was hard-working, driven and big-hearted. But more than anything, Jesse loved to play.
“He loved all sports, anything competitive, but basketball was his passion.” Tammy says the passion began when he was 5 years old when his parents bought a toy basketball hoop for Christmas. He carried his love of the game into high school with his dad by his side as his coach. Jesse’s father, Eric, says his son was an excellent player. “He was worthy of playing minutes. He was key in all of our games.”
In Jesse’s sophomore year, the Bryce Valley Mustangs took second in state, but Jesse had his eyes on a state championship. Eric says his son took the loss hard and it inspired him to work even harder. “The next Monday, he made sure he came home and went right into the gym and started playing and was practicing.” Driven to win, Jesse practiced before and after school, preparing for the season ahead. But one bad decision would keep him from that championship dream.
Jesse’s life came to an abrupt end on Aug. 5, 2012, just before starting his junior year at Bryce Valley High School. He died on his way home for Sunday dinner when his tire caught the gravel on the side of the road, he overcorrected, and his car veered out of control. The car reportedly rolled four times, ejecting Jesse. He was not wearing his seat belt. Jesse crashed less than five miles from home. Eric and Tammy were visited by a local EMT who transported them to Garfield County Memorial Hospital, where their lives were forever changed. Tammy recounts the memory, still fresh in her mind. “That’s just a nightmare come true, to have a doctor come in and tell you I’m sorry he didn’t make it. It’s words no parent should ever have to hear.”
Wanting to keep Jesse's memory alive that season, the team placed a No. 35 patch on their uniforms. It was Jesse’s jersey number, and Kevin Durant was his hero. That year, the Mustangs won the state championship in double overtime. Eric remembers the emotional win. “One of the kids … took out the jersey and in the overtime held it above his head for the remainder of the overtimes, for a double overtime game, pretty exciting.” It was a win coach Jessen shared with his son at the foot of his grave. On the ring is "Big Red," the number 35 and inscribed inside it says “more than a game, in memory of Jesse.”
After living in Tropic for 13 years, Eric and Tammy made a hard decision to move. From time to time the Jessen family returns to visit the town they consider home. During their most recent visit they chose to spread an important message.
Teamed up with Zero Fatalities, coach Jessen shares his son’s story to the students of Bryce Valley High. “Look and pay attention to the boundaries that Jesse chose to disobey with not wearing his seat belt. He wasn’t texting, he wasn’t speeding, he chose to disobey one simple rule.”
It's a story that affected the entire community of Tropic some years ago. Finding the strength to carry on, the Jessen family still celebrates Jesse's birthday each year, and at every opportunity, they remind everyone to buckle up. “You wouldn’t want anybody to go through what we’ve been through. But if we were to lose another member of the community, we’d be losing another piece of us,” Tammy said.