ESKO, Minn. – Fifteen balloons floated above packed and silent stands before the final Eskomos football game of the season Wednesday night, the first since sophomore Jackson Pfister died after collapsing during a game last week.
The moment of silence pierced the brisk air before Senior Night went on as planned, as Pfister would have wanted, said Esko High School Principal Greg Hexum, who offered a pregame tribute.
“The uncommon compassion of this young man has been reflected back on us this week through extraordinary displays of kindness,” Hexum said. “Your well wishes, thoughts and prayers have lifted us up.”
Pfister’s friends and classmates waved flags and painted their faces with his No. 15, wore shirts with his name and set up a memorial with photos and signed baseballs, footballs and hockey pucks.
Following the somber start, the atmosphere was more celebration than memorial as the boys in yellow and blue steamrolled Crosby-Ironton 33-0 and caused a mourning community to cheer as one. “Jackson would be proud,” one fan was overheard saying.
Pfister collapsed on the field during the Eskomos game at Aitkin High School on Friday. He was taken to a hospital, where he died. He would have turned 16 this Saturday.
He had a congenital heart defect, which the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled as the cause of his death, but he loved playing football, baseball and hockey. Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer said Pfister was “appropriately approved” to play football.
The Minnesota State High School League, which governs interscholastic sports in the state, requires players to complete a physical every three years and to receive clearance from a physician.
Esko coach Scott Arntson said the past few days were “hell,” and though there were talks of canceling the game, the team wanted to play.
“Tonight was about Jackson,” senior center Lincoln Severson said. “Everyone on the team knew that. Everyone played their hearts out for him.”
Pfister had “a determination and passion for life,” according to his obituary, and his coaches said he was highly competitive.
As the sun set over the stadium, the crowd’s energy helped carry a dominant Esko team. Nolan Witt’s 49-yard touchdown run in the third quarter lit up the crowd as the score went to 33-0 and the clock wound down.
When it was all over, Esko graduate Stone DeLeon hugged his sister, senior Dea DeLeon. Both were wearing Jackson shirts made by recent Esko graduate Dawson Hoffman, who printed 900 of them. “He was our cousin; we’ve known him since we were young,” Stone DeLeon said.
As the stands emptied, the sign hung on a chain link fence remained: “This game is dedicated to Jackson.”
Services for Pfister are set for 4 p.m. Sunday at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet, with visitation starting at 1 p.m.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.