LAKEWOOD - When Aaron Swanson tried out for the football team at Southwestern for the first time in his senior year, he did it for the challenge.
''He really wanted to do it,'' said Jay Sirianni, the school's head football coach. ''At his last practice, I told him how proud I was of him for sticking it out. He truly was part of that team as a senior.''
Swanson, a 2007 graduate of the school, died Monday while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Sirianni said that he remembers Swanson as a consummate team player.
With its flag at half-staff and the school sign, Southwestern Central School pays tribute to former student Lance Cpl. Aaron Swanson on Thursday.
P-J photo by C. Ralph Heeter
''He didn't always shine on Friday nights - he didn't get a chance to - but during the week, he made his teammates better,'' Sirianni said. ''I really think that he has done that all his life, and I really believe that's how it was in the military. He was making people around him better.''
Sirianni, who is also a government and economics teacher at Southwestern, said that there has been a lot of sharing of memories of Swanson at the school in the past few days. In addition, he said, he thought it was important to talk about the fallen alumnus with his students.
''We have students in our school who have siblings in the military,'' he said. ''I told stories about Aaron to just give them an idea of the kind of person he was, and that he's not different from any of those guys, or any of the students who are in school right now.''
While the emotions in the hallways of Southwestern High School in recent days have been of heartbreak and devastation, Sirianni said there is more to how students and staff members are feeling about Swanson.
''He went into the military and defended our country and we're very proud of him,'' he said. ''We're proud that Aaron was a Southwestern graduate.''
The electronic message board outside the high school has been scrolling a message in Swanson's memory throughout the week, and moments of silence were held both at the school and at the district's Board of Education meeting this week.
Dan George, superintendent of Southwestern Central School, said that several individuals have already stepped forward expressing their desire to make donations to the school for permanent memorials in Swanson's honor. However, he said, an official process needs to be followed, including the filing of a form and the approval of the Board of Education.
''There definitely are things in the works - lots of people are reaching themselves out to us, extending themselves,'' George said. ''We'll be following the procedure and then looking for input from the Board of Education, and maybe they'll want to tweak what the person has suggested, or maybe they'll have some comments the person wasn't thinking of. Then we'll put everything into place.''
A TRAGIC LOSS
Sirianni said he remembers an incident from Swanson's second practice with the Southwestern Trojans that let him and the team's other players know just how tough the young man was.
Swanson dropped a pass, and when he returned from his route he said something was wrong with his finger, Sirianni recalled.
''I looked at his finger, and it was pointing 90 degrees the other way. He wasn't complaining, he just said, 'What should I do?,''' Sirianni recalled. ''His dad came and got him, and he went to the hospital and got it reset. By the second practice, he was back on the field. And all those other guys who had been on the team and been playing for 10 years, they were like, 'Wow, this kid is tough and is sacrificing for the team.' They really accepted him after that. That was typical Aaron.''
Swanson also ran track for four years at Southwestern. Everywhere he went, he was always smiling and always in a good mood, Sirianni said.
''I would think it would be very hard to find any of his former classmates who would say anything bad about him,'' he said. ''He was well-liked by everybody in the school.''
With Swanson's death, the Southwestern Central School district is now handling a war-related tragedy for the third time in less than 10 years.
In November 2004, 1998 Southwestern graduate J.C. Matteson died in the line of duty in Fallujah, Iraq. Three years earlier, 1989 Southwestern graduate Amy King was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, as she was working as a flight attendant on board United Airlines Flight 175.
''We have definitely been affected by the recent events around the world, as far as the war on terror,'' Sirianni said.
George said that whenever tragedy befalls a school district, counselors and psychologists are available to speak with anyone seeking an outlet. Southwestern has three counselors in the high school as well as one at each the middle and elementary schools, along with three psychologists on staff.
''Those people are always available to talk to whomever,'' George said. ''In many cases, it might even be the adults in the building who would avail themselves of those services.''
Sirianni said that when he heard the news, he went across the hall to fellow social studies teacher Adam Brown, who coached Swanson during his years on the track squad. The two have spent time together this week reminiscing about Swanson.
''He was just a pleasant, nice kid,'' Sirianni said.
George said that the entire Southwestern community mourns the loss of Swanson and grieves for his family.
''He was an outstanding young man and gave his life for the country in service,'' he said. ''We're very, very proud of him and very sorry for his family in this loss.''