LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Mourners lifted their hands as though in prayer, then gave a "Woo Pig Sooie" cheer Monday as they said goodbye to Garrett Uekman, the 19-year-old Arkansas football player who died suddenly last week from an undiagnosed heart condition.
Many of the 1,200 people who packed Christ the King Catholic Church for Uekman's funeral Mass spilled onto the lawn afterward, holding red and white helium-filled balloons handed out at the end of the service. As the Razorback flag-bearing hearse prepared to take Uekman's wooden casket away for burial, the crowd released the balloons and chanted for the Hogs, much like what they do at home football games.
"The first question that everyone asks at a time like this is `Why?"' said Msgr. Lawrence Frederick, the rector at Little Rock's Catholic High School for Boys. "The important question we should ask is `What? What do we believe? Do we believe in a God who loves each of us personally?"'
Uekman was found unresponsive in his dormitory room Nov. 20, the day after seeing considerable playing time in the Razorbacks' 44-17 victory over Mississippi State in Little Rock. Within two hours, he was pronounced dead, and a coroner said the redshirt freshman tight end had a previously unknown heart problem.
Before Friday's game at LSU, a 41-17 loss, Tiger Stadium fans observed a moment of silence. Fans and players wore tributes to the player - black or red ribbons bearing his initials, GU, and his number, 88 - and a number of mourners bore the same memorials Monday.
Many players attended the service, traveling three hours from the Fayetteville campus and taking up more than 10 rows of the 1,100-seat sanctuary. Each player stood out in a red warm-up suits that had their jersey number stitched just beneath the collar. Coach Bobby Petrino sat near musicians who sang sorrowful hymns before the service, while Catholic High coach David Estes and Principal Steve Straessle sat nearby.
In the only remarks other than Frederick's homily, Straessle recounted Uekman's development after entering Catholic High from one of the smallest parochial schools in the state.
"They all enter our doors as scared, shaky little freshman who are wondering if they can survive a school with no girls and no air conditioning," Straessle said. "Then, as seniors, they graduate as confident young men who know they are armed with strong faith, a strong work ethic and the ability to endure life's pitfalls."
Before Uekman graduated in 2010, Straessle said, the young man used his influence to dissuade a younger student from starting his high school years on the wrong foot.
"I had a report that a big, big tough freshman was bullying another freshman, so I called that boy into my office. When that boy walked in, he was greeted by big tough Garrett Uekman and two other big, tough senior football players," Straessle said. After telling the freshman the bullying had to stop, he left it to Uekman and the others to have their say.
"Garrett, in his letterman's jacket, stood up, leaned in to the boy and said, `That's not the way we do things here. So let me be clear. If it happens again. Mr. Straessle is not your problem. I am your problem. Do you understand?" the principal recalled. "The big, tough freshman gritted his teeth, looked Garret in the eye and said `Yes, sir."'
Four Razorbacks players and four Catholic High students escorted the casket. The Rev. T.J. Hart, from Uekman's tiny home parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, sprinkled the casket with holy water before the service came to end and the crowd departed.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)