The triumph and tragedy of Colton Wilson

Those who knew him remember Colton Wilson as a young man of generosity, passion and courage who always wanted the most out of life.

It was a life Wilson got back after overcoming Ewing’s sarcoma, an often-fatal bone cancer that struck six years ago. But in a cruel turn of fate, the 21-year-old Wilson died earlier this month from severe brain injuries suffered in a June skateboard accident.

Weeks later, those who knew him are still trying to grasp the loss of their beloved son, brother and friend.

“People naturally want to make sense of things, but this doesn’t make sense,” said Stina Wenzek, Wilson’s older sister. “It’s so tragic and unbelievable, and I don’t know if we’ll ever really understand it until we meet him again.”

Because of his cancer a lot of people knew Wilson, or at least knew of him. He became a celebrity of sorts in the months after his diagnosis by asking that his gift from the Make-A-Wish Foundation — an organization that often provides vacations for terminally ill children and their families — be a renovation project for his South Whidbey High School baseball field.

What Wilson wanted more than anything was a ballpark to be proud of, and then the chance to play baseball on that same field. As it turned out, both wishes came true.

And so did the biggest wish of all. Wilson survived cancer to graduate with his class in the spring of 2009. He got on with his life, and in the spring of this year he was working at a Mill Creek restaurant and playing baseball again in the Puget Sound Senior Baseball League.

But on that June day, as Wilson crossed a street on a skateboard near his north Lynnwood home, he fell headfirst into a curb — and, very critically, he was not wearing a helmet. He was airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center where surgeons removed a portion of Wilson’s skull because of brain swelling, and later were forced to remove another section from the other side of his head.

Despite those drastic steps, it was not enough to remedy the tremendous trauma done to his brain. “The doctor told us he would never have a (reasonable) quality of life,” Wenzek said. “Actually, he used the word ‘impossible.’”

Despite modest improvements that surprised the medical staff — Wilson began to breathe on his own, blink his eyes for yes and no, and even to move his head and right arm — his condition was still perilous. Infections became a constant worry and, ultimately, the cause of death nearly five months after the accident.

In addition to Wenzek, Wilson leaves his mother, Lana Wilson of Whidbey Island, his father, Todd Wilson of Edmonds, older brother Bryan and younger sister Angelina.

For the family, Wenzek said, the recent months “have been rough. But, honestly, we’re relieved that he’s not suffering any more.”

To many people, Wilson’s legacy will be the South Whidbey baseball field. The project included new bleachers and fencing, new batting cages and bullpen areas and painted dugouts. Then, as word of the effort began to snowball, additional contributions provided new tarps for the field and new equipment for the players.

And there is a plaque in Wilson’s honor, denoting his Make-A-Wish dream.

When the field was finished, “you could see it in his eyes that it meant a lot to him,” said Dave Guetlin, Wilson’s former coach. “He was very proud of it, and very proud that he could give this back to his school and his community.”

Yet he was also uncomfortable with the publicity generated by his request.

“I never once had him eager to do an interview,” Guetlin said. “He was so reluctant about that. He didn’t want the limelight in any way. All he really wanted was to be a normal kid like anybody else.”

Cancer cost him his sophomore and junior baseball seasons, but he returned to play briefly as a senior. In his first game back, he lined a sharp single to center field on the first pitch thrown to him. By the time he reached first base, he was crying tears of joy.

And he was not alone.

“I know I was standing at third base (in the coaching box) just sobbing,” Guetlin said. “Everybody in the stands was sobbing, too. To see that kid come from that far back and get a hit, it meant the world.”

Guetlin retired from coaching after the 2011 season, though he still teaches at the high school. Some mornings he arrives at work early to exercise on the school’s track, and afterward he occasionally walks to the nearby baseball field for some moments of reflection.

“I’ll go over and stand by the dugout, and I’ll look out at the field and I’ll think about some of those things,” he said. “And how it was all because of one kid’s selfless gift.”

Likewise, Wenzek has her own memories, including a phone call from her brother the day before the accident in June. He had gone to a Coupeville school that day to speak to a class of fourth-graders about perseverance, a topic he understood well because of his battle with cancer.

“He told them, ‘Never, ever, give up,’” Wenzek said. “And then at the very end he said, ‘Always do good to others because you never know what tomorrow will bring.’ And I think that’s a very big part of his story because those were basically his last words.”

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