BRUSHFORK — More than a few persons who’ve attended basketball games at Brushfork Armory have noticed that the massive vaulted wooden beams and the acoustic paneled planks that arch above the playing floor strongly resemble the ceiling of a church sanctuary.
On Saturday, the ceiling of a church sanctuary was exactly what it was.
Family, friends, classmates, teammates, rivals and the governor of West Virginia turned out in droves for the visitation and memorial service held for popular Bluefield High School student athlete Tony Webster III, who died as a result of a ruptured brain aneurysm suffered on Jan. 14 while weight lifting.
Given the numbers of mourners who came and went during the two-hour visitation period prior to the service, the full head count will probably remain elusive. More than a thousand remained on hand for the service.
“If not by blood, than certainly by affection ... he is mourned by a thousand fathers and a thousand mothers,” said the Rev. James L. Palmer of Mount Zion Baptist Church, who was the presiding pastor of multiple clergymen who officiated the memorial service.
“He was a brother to a thousand brothers and a brother to a thousand sisters,” Palmer said.
The arrival of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice shortly after the start of the service appeared to be a complete surprise to many of the mourners present. Justice entered the auditorium through the back door to the right rear, crossing in front of the stage. Justice paid his respects to the bereaved parents: Coach Tony Webster and his wife, Sharon. The governor recognized other family members who were seated on the front row reserve seating, then climbed the left side stairs to join the pastors gathered on the main podium.
Palmer announced the presence of the 36th governor of West Virginia, remarking that “whatever your politics are,” one could not deny Justice’s genuine affection for the young people of the state.
Even since becoming governor, Justice has continued to coach the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team. Before he was elected governor, Justice coached both the girls and boys programs at the Class AAA high school, which is located near the state fairgrounds outside of Lewisburg. Bluefield boys head coach Buster Large and assistant coach Tony Webster have both been respected opponents in the past, Justice said
“I know what Southern West Virginians always have done. They love their families. They’re always there for all of us. It didn’t surprise me in any way when I got here and saw all the cars,” said Justice, referring to the packed armory parking lot.
Justice said he was conducting girls basketball practice when Bluefield tennis pro Steve Sarver informed him of ‘Lil’ Tony’s collapse and subsequent grim prognosis.
“He knows how much that I love kids and how much I’ve competed against Bluefield’s great team. He knows how much we care. Instantly, my team all joined hands and prayed that some way somehow that this great young man would be O.K.,” said Justice, who noted that his team has continued to pray for the Webster family and for Bluefield.
“I’ve competed with Coach Large. I’ve saluted coach (Fred) Simon. And I salute this great coach right here ... I salute this incredible individual,” Justice said, gesturing toward Coach Webster.
Justice said that one of his players, Angelia Groves, requested that the Greenbrier East girls obtain maroon, white and grey ribbons honoring the Webster family to wear on their warm-ups prior to Monday night’s upcoming game with the Lady Beavers at Brushfork Armory.
Justice also announced that as of 1:20 p.m. Saturday, he has proclaimed January 7 as ‘Lil’ Tony Webster Interscholastic Memorial Day, to be recognized henceforth in West Virginia.
“‘Lil’ Tony will be missed by all. He was, what? Only 17 years old. This day will forevermore stand in honor of all of those who participate in interscholastic athletics — girls and boys from throughout our state — that we’ve lost way too young,” said Justice, who credited Sarver with the idea for the statewide proclamation.
“All we’ve got to know is to remember ... all we’ve got to know is that (’Lil’ Tony) is with us, right now. We can’t see him, but he’s with us. And he’s in a place that’s unbelievable right now. And we can treasure, all of us, the 17 great years we had the opportunity to be with him. God bless you, thank you for having me,” Justice said, receiving an ovation as he left the building.
The memorial service was a sad occasion, and yet one that afforded mourners moments of astonishing uplift.
Palmer told the gathering that he was at Roanoke Carillion Memorial Hospital on the day the deceased athlete’s body was finally sent home for funeral preparations. A hundred doctors and nurses solemnly lined the halls in vigil as the remains were wheeled down the corridor on a gurney to be transported back home.
Some of the organs donated by Webster have already been put to medical use, saving other lives, Palmer said.
“May your life mean something ... but I challenge you to make your death also mean something,” the pastor said, urging gathered mourners to follow the example set by the young Webster — not only as a good citizen, friend and teammate, but also his status as an organ donor.
Given that the death of Tony Webster III was felt as far away as Charleston, the local impact of the loss was certainly palpable at the armory on Saturday. It was reflected in the the faces of those gathered to honor him.
The youngster played fullback on Bluefield’s 2017 state championship football team. He served as a ballboy on two Bluefield state championship basketball teams and eventually played basketball for the Beavers through his sophomore season. This year he decided to forgo hoops to devote his energies this winter to training for football and engaging in his other athletic passion: power lifting. Webster broke several world records for the 16-17 age group in the United States Power Lifting Association.
In the classroom, he was an excellent student with a 3.5 GPA and well-liked by classmates, teammates and even his athletic rivals. He was an active member of both Mount Zion Baptist and John Stewart United Methodist Church.
In addition to Palmer, who provided the stirring eulogy, and Rev. James C. Reed, who offered the Benediction, other officiating clergy included Rev. Adrian Dowell, Rev. Jerome Price, Rev. Todd French and Rev. Jerome Price.
Among the many bittersweet images of ‘Lil’ Tony Webster displayed on the big screed during the visitation slide show were photos of Webster and his good friend, Devin Lester, reaching back into their earlier childhood days. A particularly poignant image was one of the two friends posing together after the 2018 Beaver-Graham football game.
Lester, a junior who was a vital member of Graham High School’s Class 2 state championship football team, served as one of the pallbearers on Saturday. Other pallbearers included Bluefield state championship teammates Latrell ‘Mookie’ Collier, Jason ‘Truck’ Edwards, Ronnell Blevins, Kalin Parris and Chandler Cooper. The entire Bluefield High School football team, which was much in evidence, served as honorary pall bearers.
In addition to Beavers teammates and Graham rivals, a delegation of around 15 Princeton High School football players accompanied Tigers head coach Chris Pedigo to the service. The entire team had autographed a Princeton No. 5 jersey — which was Webster’s Bluefield jersey number — to present to the Webster family.