Nearly 1,500 people from all walks of life gathered Friday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium to pay tribute to Kole Swartz, the 19-year-old Clinton man who died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound at a house party five days earlier.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Swartz was a standout lineman for the Hellgate High School football team and redshirted as a freshman last fall for the Montana Grizzlies.
He was the kind of person you couldn’t help but notice, his girlfriend told the crowd from a podium set up on the 50-yard line.
“The second he walked into the room you knew he was there,” said Brianna Gardner of Alta Loma, California, a middle blocker for the UM volleyball team. “He was huge, both in size and spirit, and he had a heart to match it.”
Gardner was one of four scheduled speakers in the 90-minute funeral service that also featured a video of Swartz’s life on the 936-square-foot GrizVision screen, set to songs by George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Garth Brooks and Chris Ledoux.
The noon ceremony was delayed several minutes until the long line outside the south gate of the stadium dwindled. Attendants passed out cards bearing the No. 92, Swartz’s number at UM after wearing 82 at Hellgate.
Pallbearers, several of them Grizzly football players wearing their game jerseys, carried the casket from a white hearse and placed it in front of the podium.
Large photos were propped against the speakers and a table covered with flowers in front of 200 chairs on the stadium floor. Swartz’s parents, Sean and Jennifer, sat in front with Gardner and his only sibling, Emma, a sophomore at Hellgate.
The ceremony bore a striking resemblance to one nearly two years ago, when another strapping 19-year-old football player from Hellgate, Chance Geery, was mourned in the same stadium.
Geery, of Milltown, was a teammate of Swartz and had heard encouraging words from the UM football staff about joining them as a walk-on in the fall of 2013. He was killed in April of his senior year when a car veered off Mullan Road and struck him on the sidewalk while Geery was walking hand-in-hand with his girlfriend.
Gardner told of her first long conversation with Swartz after they’d met in the dorms last August during fall football and volleyball camps. He asked her to accompany him on a task that turned out to be a drive to Geery’s memorial on Mullan Road.
They parked nearby at the Missoula County Detention Center, Gardner said, and he told her Geery’s story.
“My heart thumped and shattered and I had no idea what to do, what to say to him, why I was even there,” she said. “But that was the moment I saw how deep Kole’s love was.”
They talked deep into the night until an officer booted them out of the parking lot at 2:30 a.m.
“It was hard to convince him that we had just been talking about life,” Gardner said.
Swartz was a cowboy polo player, a horseman, an outdoorsman and a beloved big brother to Emma, who read a tearful tribute.
She recalled sitting with Kole on the kitchen floor and watching the sun rise on the day after he received a bike for his 12th birthday. He told her of his hopes and plans, and his dream to play football for the Grizzlies.
Last December, he picked up Emma from choir practice and stopped at Taco Bell, she said. They talked and talked about the same kind of things, but this time it was about her aspirations, not his.
“We even came up with a secret sign that meant, 'I’m on my first date, you need to leave,' ” she said, drawing widespread laughs.
Steven Pfahler, a former Grizzly tight end, got to know Swartz when Swartz came to Pfahler’s gym as a sophomore seeking a weight trainer.
In the three years since, Pfahler said, he was amazed not only in the youngster’s strength and work ethic, but also his outlook on life.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Kole down,” Pfahler said. “He was absolutely irrepressible and we’re going to miss him a ton, just like everybody else here is going to miss him.”
Josh Hinrichs, a close family friend who attended high school in Fairfield with Sean Swartz, said Kole was like a son to him.
He called himself a dog person, said Hinrichs, “but Emma said that only held true until a kitten came along.”
Dozens of UM and Hellgate football players wore jerseys to the service and new Grizzly football coach Bob Stitt attended with his staff. Several of Sean Swartz’s fellow United Parcel Services workers were also in the crowd in uniform. Swartz also played basketball at Hellgate and helped Jeff Hays' Knights to the Class AA state championship in 2013.
Sean and Jennifer Swartz made their way to the podium near the end of the ceremony. Speaking over the casket of his son, Sean Swartz thanked the university, Hellgate, Clinton, Missoula and Frenchtown, where the Swartzes lived until Kole’s seventh-grade year, for the overwhelming support this week.
He addressed Kole’s teammates, peers and the youngsters who looked up to him.
“We’re not going to be as involved as we thought we were,” Sean Swartz said. “But we want you to know we’re behind you in everything you do. Whether it’s on the field or in the classroom, we’ll be watching.
“We wish you all the best – a happy and fun life. Get an education. That’s all we wanted for our son.”