Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson was one of the speakers during an emotional memorial service for Rajaan Bennett on Wednesday night in Powder Springs, Ga.
The Vanderbilt signee was struck down as part of a murder-suicide in his home on Feb. 18. His final act before being shot and killed was trying to protect his mother and younger siblings. Bennett's father died in a car accident when he was just 10.
More than 3,500 people attended the service at McEachern High School. Bennett was the 2009 Georgia Class AAAA Player of the Year, but what he meant to that school, that community and to his family obviously went much deeper than just football.
Johnson, as part of his remarks, said: "Rajaan Bennett was a dynamic football player and a great leader. But at the same time, he was humble, loving, caring and dedicated to his family. Fortunately for all of us who knew him, Rajaan showed us the way. He left us the blueprint for living a life that matters."
During the ceremony, Bennett's literature teacher, Allison Paulk, tearfully read an essay that Bennett had written just a week prior to his death. Fittingly, the essay was titled "Strength," and he so poignantly captured the very essence of strength in his piece.
"There will never be a time that I will give up," Paulk read from Bennett's essay. "I work hard at whatever I do for that man upstairs to smile down on me with the rays of the sun. My drive cannot be stopped or even slowed down, because every obstacle has a way around it."
We all struggle to make sense of a tragedy like this. The reality is that no matter how hard we try, we can't. I'm saddened that I never had a chance to meet Bennett, to watch him play in college, to interview him.
But Johnson was right. He left a blueprint for us all, even those of us who didn't know him.
I do know this much: The next time things aren't going just right for me or something seems to be too much to overcome, I'm going to remember Rajaan Bennett.
Hopefully, we all will.
I'm posting his essay in its entirety down below. A word of warning, you'll need some tissue. Some really powerful stuff:
by Rajaan Bennett
Somebody once told me that, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). Life hasn't been a walk in the park for me, but I'm thankful for the obstacles, hardships, and accomplishments that GOD has provided for me. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be the Rajaan Bennett that you know today. I wouldn't have things any other way.
Strength is the ability to do or bear things in the state of being strong.
In the year of 2000, I moved from the streets of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to the suburbs of Powder Springs, Georgia. A year later, my dad died in a horrible car wreck, and as a ten year-old, I knew he wasn't coming back. This tragedy rattled me to the core. I felt as if there was no need for me to live. I wanted to be as happy as the kids with dads and moms.
Some days I would wonder - why me? But eventually, I realized that it was my turn to become a man. As I became older, I came to notice that in life you use strength as a blanket to protect you from this cold world.
I am the oldest of 3 and I have a brother with special needs who I have to take care of. I have to balance school, sports, friends, and family - and it gets so hard, but I push myself. I push myself like a sprinter who is neck and neck with an opponent with 10 meters left. With the strength that I posses, I feel like I'm Hercules.
I matured faster than all of my friends - and there will never be a time that I will give up. I may complain, I may refuse, and I may even cry about it, but I know I have to do what I have to do.
I work hard at whatever I do - just for that man upstairs to smile down on me with the rays of the sun ...and they feel so warm. My drive cannot be stopped or even slowed down, because every obstacle has a way around it. Every day I become stronger from the weights physically, the books mentally, and life emotionally.
There is no limit to my strength and at the end of the day, I want to be known as the strongest.