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Esko mourns loss of athlete Jackson Pfister

'He was just a great kid'

 

October 18, 2019

Mike Creger

A somber crowd of students, parents, family, friends and community members gathered at Esko football stadium Wednesday to honor Esko football player Jackson Pfister, who died after collapsing on the field at the Aitkin game last Friday. The medical examiner determined the cause was heart failure, the result of congenital heart defect.

When Esko football player Jackson Pfister collapsed during a varsity game last week and died of heart failure, it shocked and saddened people across the school district, the township, nearby towns and neighboring schools. The messages flooded out across social media, on the phone and face-to-face within hours, offering prayers to his family - parents Matt and Brooke, younger brother Nolan - support to the team, and counseling for the students. The grief over Jackson brought people together.

According to Jackson's grandfather, Russ Davidson, the Ramsey County Medical Examiner determined that the teenager died of heart failure, the result of a congenital heart defect.

The diagnosis was not a complete surprise, said his dad, Matt Pfister. Jackson was born with the defect and had heart surgery three times: at 8 months, age 4 and age 8. The last surgery, Matt said, was very intense.

"We could have lost him at that point. God willing, we didn't," Matt said, explaining that the surgery worked, but it wasn't a guarantee. "We were blessed to have him as long as we did."

Jackson was competitive from a young age, his dad said. He loved to win. Give him a football or a baseball, hockey puck, soccer ball, whatever, he just wanted to compete, he said.

Jackson played varsity baseball - shortstop was his favorite position - football at Esko, and on a travel baseball team in Duluth.

Grateful, grieving

Each summer he was required to have a checkup with his specialist, wear a monitor and endure tests to make sure he could play his favorite sports. Each checkup got better and better, his dad said. He was cleared to play by the cardiologist most recently in June.

"Something happened and we're not exactly sure what that was," Matt said. "But I'm sure it had everything to do with his condition. We were never sure how long we would have him. It could have happened at home, getting off the bus, anywhere. We're just grateful it happened on the football field where he wanted to be."

Jackson, the backup quarterback, had gone into the game against Aitkin when Esko was ahead 41-14. He collapsed on the field, got up again and started to jog to the sideline, when he collapsed again. An ambulance was called and the game ended then, with some three minutes left.

Esko school district administration sent a message electronically to Esko school families Saturday morning, letting them know that Jackson had died after receiving emergency medical care for a cardiac event.

"Please keep the Pfisters in your thoughts and prayers in their time of incomprehensible loss," the message read.

That morning the football team gathered, to get together and support each other.

On Sunday afternoon, the school was open for students, staff and community members to come and talk about Jackson and remember him.

"Our own counselors and other volunteer counselors were there," Esko superintendent Aaron Fischer said. "A support dog from Cloquet was here. Local clergy from Esko and some from Cloquet were all here."

The same outpouring of support continued on Monday, when other area school districts also sent their counselors to help the Esko counselors meet with students. The students were encouraged, if they wanted, to go and meet with a counselor, either individually or in groups.

"Everyone grieves differently. They could work with those people, talk, ask questions, whatever they needed," Fischer said. "We want them to know people care. And they can go and ask questions and also connect with each other."

Family, community

Fischer said it was important to everyone in the school and the tight-knit community to let the family know how much they care about them. The superintendent said Jackson's mom, Brooke, is a third-grade teacher in the school district and grew up in Thomson Township. Her parents still live there too.

"We're a small community. Everyone knows each other," Fischer said Monday afternoon. "Esko is coming together; this was a very important day for us to connect and support. This weekend was about supporting family and kids - next we will look at a way to honor Jackson. There will be something at Wednesday's football game for sure."

Jackson's football teammates came together for practice Monday, and had their last game of the regular season Wednesday.

The team entered Esko Stadium for its game against Crosby-Ironton led by senior Lincoln Severson carrying the Eskomo football flag and followed by sophomore Kade Gonsorowski bearing a flag with Jackson's No. 15 emblazoned on it.

A somber crowd gathered at stadium. On hand were flags and shirts honoring Jackson. A memorial with flowers and pictures of him with family and friends, and signed footballs, sat just next to the entrance to the stands.

There were hugs and tears as the crowd settled in on Senior Night. A reflection from Principal Greg Hexum on Jackson, and the love and support from the community near and far, preceded a moment of silence.

Any tears people may have been trying to stifle now flowed freely among the faces in the crowd. After the silence, the student section released balloons with messages to Jackson on them. They sailed southeast above the bleachers and over orange-tinged woods nearby.

He is missed very much, said his coaches, adding that Jackson was "a tremendous competitor," and a steadying influence in the games he played, whether it was football or baseball, on or off the field. He was very coachable, and a leader.

"They are still devastated, but the team has showed a solidarity to move forward this season, knowing that's what Jackson would want us to do as a team," one of the coaches told the Pine Knot News.

A knowing heart

While Jackson was born with a less-than-perfect physical heart, his parents said he made up for it with his metaphysical heart.

"His heart was so big and so strong," said his dad. "He was such a caring and compassionate person. He would see someone who - at school or on the field - was feeling down, who maybe weren't as social, or struggled physically ... He would see that and he gravitated toward people like that. He made them feel like they were accepted and they were a part of things. He would find a way to do that."

That, he said, made him and Brooke prouder than any achievements on a field.

In the few days since Jackson's death, Matt said the stories of how his oldest son cared for others have come "out of the woodwork" from sources far and wide.

"It has not surprised us, but it has filled us with peace and joy. He was a good person, a good son, a good friend, a good mentor," he said.

Jackson was also on the Esko student council. He loved to travel with his family, especially on trips to Florida to visit grandparents who rent a place there for a month or two each winter. Matt said they would always try to catch a Twins spring baseball game. In addition to playing sports, Jackson also liked to study them.

Above all, his dad said, he just loved to be around people.

"At school, with his friends, at home, wherever, it didn't matter to him," his dad said. "He was very much a personable people person."

"He was just a great kid," said his grandfather, Russ Davidson.

Widespread support

Matt Pfister expressed thanks for the tremendous support the family has received from the community the past week.

"Words cannot describe how this community, school, people we didn't necessarily know, it doesn't matter, have come out ... to support our family," he said, describing an outpouring of support from those in Cloquet, Carton, Proctor, Aitkin, Moose Lake and more. "All these communities that Esko is connected with based solely on sports, just an absolute outpouring of love and support. We want all the surrounding communities to know how much we appreciate their thoughts and prayers and support. It's really been spectacular."

Services for Jackson are set for Sunday with visitation 1-4 p.m. and a service at 4 p.m. at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet, where Jackson was a member of the confirmation class. A large turnout is expected, and a shuttle is being provided for those who park at Pinehurst Park.

Matt acknowledged that many people want to give in times like these. For those who want to donate money, he suggested giving to an organization that supports research and treatment of congenital heart defects.

Prayers are also greatly appreciated, he said. Or just taking action to make things better in the world.

Contributed photo

Jackson and his family loved to go to Twins games, here and in Florida during spring training. Pictured from left are Nolan, Jackson, Matt and Brooke Pfister.

"Doing something kind for someone else, whatever form that may take, maybe visiting a shut-in, helping at a soup kitchen, doing something to stop bullying, encouraging kids to support other kids in school," he said. "To Jackson, everyone mattered, everyone counted, everyone felt like they belonged. That was important to him."

Jackson would have turned 16 on Saturday, Oct. 19. He was very much looking forward to getting his driver's license, said his dad, adding that Jackson had "wisely" gravitated more toward his mother when it came to learning how to drive and prepare for his test.

"She told me just the other day, they had a conversation about being [an organ] donor," Matt said. "Jackson said, 'Mom, I want to be a donor. I want to be able to give to others if something happens to me.' We went through that process, he will be a donor.

"He always wanted to give."

Pine Knot News reporter Mike Creger contributed to this story.

 
 
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