A rain squall blew through Washington-Grizzly Stadium in the middle of Friday’s funeral service for 19-year-old Chance Geery.
Attendants passed out umbrellas to family and friends seated on the 50-yard line. When Gabby Rosier tried to open hers it popped up inside out, as if tugged from above.
“Oh, yeah,” Geery’s longtime girlfriend said later. “That was Chance.”
It was a moment of levity in a tearful, first-of-its kind ceremony in Montana’s largest football stadium.
Geery, a boisterous, playful, charming senior at Hellgate High School, died Monday when he was struck by a car while walking hand-in-hand with Rosier on a sidewalk along Mullan Road.
Police said at the time the driver of the vehicle, an unidentified woman, was apparently distracted. Alcohol, drugs or texting didn’t appear to be factors. A police department spokesman on Friday said investigators are “waiting on a couple of things” before completing their report to the county attorney, who’ll decide if charges will be filed.
Nearly 300 people gathered for the noon memorial service in a west section of the University of Montana stadium. A white canopy on the stadium floor sheltered a floral arrangement and the urn holding Geery’s cremains.
Family, friends and coaches sat in front of the canopy in folding chairs for an hourlong ceremony that concluded with a video/slideshow of Geery’s life on the stadium’s giant video screen.
Through the rest of the service, the same screen displayed a picture of Geery in his scarlet, black and gold Hellgate Knights football uniform, No. 58.
An all-state defensive lineman for Hellgate last fall, Geery told his father in the weeks leading up to his death that he’d talked to Grizzly coaches who had encouraged him to walk on next fall.
“He looked forward to playing football at college, maybe on this field,” said Chaplain Dan Dixson, pastor for Partners in Home Care Hospice, who officiated the service.
Besides football, baseball and other sports, Geery loved motocross and was in the process of fixing up a vintage Dodge Charger for his senior project. He led an active lifestyle enriched by a large cadre of friends.
“Chance grew up with the mountains and waters of western Montana as his own backyard, and he made choices to do things in those outdoors – camping and going on adventures with his friends and family,” Dixson said.
Todd Geery called his son a protector, of his little brother Chalan, of his quarterback and of his girlfriend. He was a Superman fan from a very young age.
“I would say: ‘You know, Chance, Superman isn’t real.’ And his reply to me would usually be something like, ‘Yes. I is real.’”
Chance dressed up as Superman whenever he could, for Halloween, even a couple of times at Hellgate – “probably in the same outfit he wore when he was 6,” Todd said.
“He was a little boy in a great big body,” said Teresa Burch-Geery, Chance’s mother. “He never wanted to grow up. He doesn’t have to now.”
Rosier, who dated Geery since grade school, said they had plans to go to college together, maybe get married, maybe have kids.
“We were planning to get jobs soon and move out, and I knew that I would have a life with him,” Rosier said. “And now that that’s gone all I have is to thank him for the life that he gave me, and I owe it all to him.
“I just want you to know that I love you so much, Chance, and I’m going to miss you forever.”
Among Geery’s peers who sat on the field were 13 “Bonner Boys” – honorary pallbearers who grew up with Geery and graduated with him from Bonner School four years ago.
“If it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t have done football this past year,” said one of them, No. 71 Skylar Nowlen, who shared the left offensive tackle spot with Geery.
“I was contemplating it this last year. Chance messaged me over the summer and kind of encouraged me to (play) and told me to get hold of the coach. I did and came out for practice for the first day and he was right there next to me.”
The same Bonner class of 2009 lost Ashlee Patenaude and Taylor Cearley in December of their freshman year under all-too-similar circumstances – hit by a driver, who was in this case impaired, while they walked with friends along Montana Highway 200 near East Missoula.
The outpouring of grief at that time included a memorial service in a jam-packed Bonner School gym. A similar scene played out in the gym last October after 36-year-old Jessica Weimer, a mother and popular kitchen worker at the school, died in a head-on collision on the Blackfoot highway.
Based on the previous funerals, Todd Geery said he tried to think of a larger venue for his son’s service. He had no idea how to go about landing Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but Rosier and others took the dream and ran with it.
Willie Beamon, who coaches linebackers for the Knights, said he got in touch with UM head coach Mick Delaney through Jesse Ginn, a current Grizzly and former Hellgate player.
Delaney, said Beamon, “was on board right away” and put him in touch with UM’s Chuck Maes, internal operations director, and events coordinator Janie Haight.
“It was awesome,” Beamon said. “I didn’t really have to say anything. I just said our kid passed away and they were on board.”
Haight worked with Garden City Funeral Home to coordinate the funeral, the first in the stadium’s 27-year history. The logistics worked out well, since it was spring break on campus and the UM football and soccer teams who use the stadium also took the week off.
“My biggest worry was they were forecasting 90 percent chance of rain for Friday,” Haight said. “But it worked out fine.”
Beamon tipped his hat to the effort of the UM staff.
“I can’t say enough about the U,” he said. “I’m definitely a Montana fan now.”