Only the Great Die Young

Misery, mystery and a family's brave journey into life after death

There's a boy buried in your old stack of newspapers.

There's a family in Frisco struggling to give thanks on a holiday muted by tears. Still, they are determined to keep his legacy alive and well.

Given the hectic daze of your days, you've forgotten Chandler Jackson. Since his midsummer death there's been the Cowboys and Longhorns and back-to-school and Jennifer Aniston on the cover of People 900 times and, oh my gosh, only 33 shopping days before Christmas!

But dig waaaay down. You'll know it's Chandler's story when you get to the shock that hasn't stopped and the pain that hasn't even begun to subside. Because, as Rick and Charmane Jackson know all too well, there's only one thing worse than wondering why your son died--wondering how.

"My faith is really being tested," says Charmane, staring blankly at a sweating glass of ice water and a box of her son's photos in the kitchen of her Frisco home. "Why take away someone who was doing so much good for so many people? All Chandler wanted to do is love and be loved. Look around. There are not enough people like him in this world. And for him to be taken away? Like that? I just don't know anymore..."

With his tremendous athleticism, infinite heart and good humor, 12-year-old Chandler had the inside track on becoming the next All-American Hero. Then--before you could comprehend his present or calculate his future--he was gone. In a tree-lined Kentucky ditch on a July 6 blackened with misery and mind-boggling mystery, Chandler instead became a tragedy.

While playing in the family's annual vacation golf tournament at Dogwood Hills in rural Cunningham, Kentucky, Chandler walked down a slope to retrieve an errant shot and never came up. Friends and family found him lying at the bottom of the incline, fatally wounded from a neck puncture and a severed carotid artery. As unthinkable as it is uncertain, Chandler impaled himself on the jagged shaft of a 9-iron that somehow, some way, broke into two pieces.

With no witnesses, no logical explanation and no high-tech CSIin tiny-town Kentucky, knowing precisely how Chandler died is impossible. Best guess: A one-in-a-million boy was killed by a one-in-a-billion accident.

Pass the turkey and hug your kids. Because sometimes, terrible things happen to terrific children.

"Only two people will ever know exactly what happened," says Cunningham Fire Department Emergency Medical Technician Bobby Toon. "Chandler and God."

You might have read about the accident last summer before discarding the paper onto your pile. But what you haven't known until now is the real shame--not what happened, but what didn't.

Chandler Jackson didn't get to grow up.

"Chandler lived so fast, played so hard, loved so much," Rick says between tears and Coors Light beers. "It's like he knew he was a special angel...one that would only be on this earth a short time."

Born in Plano, raised in Frisco and schooled in Carrollton, Chandler hit, caught, threw, dived, kicked, leaped, rolled, birdied, danced, sang, prayed, joked, laughed, loved and crowbarred 12 lifetimes into his 12 years. Named after Happy Chandler, Major League Baseball's second commissioner, his primary passion was good ol' country hardball. In his last tournament, last June in Denton, he went 8 for 14 with the weekend's only over-the-fence homer and seven other extra-base hits. In his final at-bat, he tattooed a nasty curve ball off the left-field fence, knocking in the winning run and qualifying his Texas Lightning team for the National Tournament.

"He was the most competitive player I ever coached," says coach Rob Feeback. "And pretty close to the most talented. There was nothing he couldn't do on a baseball field."

Chandler was an unusual child blessed with loving parents, adequate resources and the innate ability and humility to boomerang those gifts into generosity. He gave game balls to teammates, spent his Dave & Buster's game tickets on gifts for friends and hugged everyone he could reach. He sang songs with his mom, gave impromptu back massages to his sister, Lindsey, and once even rewarded dad with a promotion.

After "Pappy" Brown, 87-year-old patriarch and two-time honorary chairman of the Kentucky Derby, gave a formal toast at the posh wedding of his grandson and Chandler's cousin, the twangy Texas kid ditched his black tie, morphed into Adam Sandler and forever endeared a down-to-earth boy to his new relatives.

"I have a toast, too!" Chandler said, standing, as the needle scratched violently off the Sinatra vinyl.

Seems the groom was first introduced to the Jacksons at a University of Kentucky football tailgating party. Understandably nervous to fit in, he meticulously prepared his hamburger. Bun. Cheese. Ketchup. Pickles. Onions. Lettuce. Bite.

"But he forgot the meat!" howled Chandler into the microphone, loosening the stuffy wedding guests into side-splitting laughter. "I knew right then he would be a fun guy to have around. Welcome to our family!"

Almost immediately, Rick got a new title.

"So you're Chandler's dad?"

Predictably, Chandler's family is struggling to live in the wake of his death.

With their divorce finalized last May, Rick and Charmane are learning to cope with daily depression, weekly grief counseling and an ongoing relationship that teeters between strained, severed and successful. But every time their will is about to run dry, the parents get strength from the memory of their son's pet saying: "This is the best day of my life!"

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