When Manhattan High’s 23 senior football players take the field Friday night at Bishop Stadium on senior night, it will be a time of joy and celebration, reflecting on numerous outstanding high-school football careers that are drawing to a close.
But it will also be a time of remembrance and heavy hearts. Tyler Dowling and Brett Bolton, two players killed in 2011, are also a part of this class, and their former classmates and teammates are doing everything they can to preserve their memory.
It’s been more than two years since the Manhattan community lost two of its students in the same year. The first was Dowling, who was murdered by one of his classmates in a tragedy that rocked the community in April of 2011. The second came later that year in August, when Bolton died in a car wreck.
Both were freshmen at Manhattan High, and both played football. Needless to say, the young class of soon-to-be sophomores was dealing with tragedy not normally experienced by children.
“It was definitely a difficult time, and I think the boys, unfortunately, learned a lot about life at an early age,” Manhattan head coach Joe Schartz. “It’s sad, but I think it’s also nice that the boys hold those two young men close to their hearts.”
Senior and football captain Troy Ward said the group was overwhelmed in losing a pair of teammates and friends in the same year.
“It was devastating when it happened,” Ward said. “When it happened to Tyler, it wasn’t just us, the whole school wasn’t the same after it, and then another tough blow with Brett. But being together really helped us out, sticking together and coming together.”
In the weeks and months following the deaths of Dowling and Bolton, Paul Bergeron, now a senior linemen and captain for the Indians, took it upon himself to make green bracelets inscribed with Dowling’s name and the phrase “You will always be with us”.
“Tyler’s favorite color was green, and everyone knew that,” Dowling’s mother, Angie Dowling said. “So he had green bracelets made up. No one asked him to do that, he just did it, and he sold over 1,000 of those bracelets.”
Later that year, blue and orange bracelets were made in honor of Bolton as well.
His friends and teammates also preserved his memory with an intramural basketball team, complete with orange shirts.
“I didn’t even know this at the time, but Brett — the kids were playing basketball when they were younger, and they named their dunks — so he had a dunk that he called the Flyin’ Hawaiian,” Brett’s mother, Leigha Bolton said. “There’s still an intramural team called the Flyin’ Hawaiians with orange shirts.”
By the time of the first football game in the fall of 2011, the two families had come together and made t-shirts in honor of both boys. The demand was so high, they had to produce more at a later date.
“There was such a demand for those shirts — we had to get more made up afterward and people paid for them,” Bolton said. “So that was a big deal. We see them around town still today, so that’s pretty neat.”
In the case of Tyler, all the money raised went to his memorial fund, which is in the process of setting up a scholarship fund for MHS athletes.
Brett, who played baseball and wrestled, was honored by the Manhattan High wrestlers with an award named after him, which is given to the team member with the utmost character.
“Coach Gonzales has honored Brett with an award, it’s one of the last awards they hand out at the wrestling banquet,” Bolton said. “It’s an award for character.”
During what would have been the boys’ sophomore football season, the team wore helmet decals with each of their initials to preserve their memory. But due to a KSHSAA rule, they had to be removed the following year. The stickers were allowed to return this season, but the gesture would be only one of many this year.
“The players themselves, their classmates, they’ve been honoring both of our boys ever since their deaths in 2011,” Dowling said. “They’ve made sure to keep them a part of their team, and it’s grown and grown as time has passed, which is remarkable for their age.”
During the summer prior to this football season, senior James Kordyak wanted to make sure the team did everything it could to remember Tyler and Brett. Along with the captains, the team decided to bring back the helmet stickers, as well as create two flags with the Indian logo and the boys’ initials on them. The flags are run out on the field ahead of the team when it exits the locker room at home games.
In addition, some of Tyler’s closest friends on the team still make it a point to play football and spend time with Tanner Dowling, Tyler’s younger brother.
“Tyler has a younger brother Tanner who is 8 and Tyler’s best friends, Henry Bieber, Joe Hall and Darian Taylor, who are on the team, make it a point to stay in contact with Tanner,” Tracy Burnett, Tyler’s father said. “They play football with him outside all of their activities. That is a genuine trait.”
Perhaps the most moving gesture came recently. Madison Long, a senior cheerleader at Manhattan High, painted a banner with each of the seniors with their name and navy jerseys complete with numbers, holding hands in a long line. In the middle are two players with white jerseys, representing Tyler and Brett. Long came to school during the weekend to paint the banner by herself.
“That was a huge surprise to us,” Bolton said. “People started sending me pictures of that on Monday. (Long) sent me a text the other night that said she thought the boys needed to be remembered as part of seniors on the team. And she’s a cheerleader. So it’s not just the football players, it’s everyone in that senior class — they’re an awesome class of kids and they have been ever since they were young.
“It’s everyone involved with it, not just the team, it’s everybody in the class, and their parents have been very supportive of us.”
In addition, both sets of parents were invited to be honored Friday night during the senior night ceremony.
As time has passed, the families say they still get notes and messages from members of the community, offering condolences and support.
“Both families, we get text messages, people still come by,” Dowling said. “Although our boys aren’t here with us, their teammates and their classmates — they still are here with us and keep our boys’ spirits alive.”
All of the parents involved have become close, helping the other to deal with grief and get through a difficult situation. Dowling reached out to Bolton in August after seeing news reports accompanying Brett’s death, with images of Brett wearing the green bracelet in memory of Tyler.
“Angie and I became friends, and our families became connected, because Brett was honoring Tyler after his death,” Bolton said. “And so Angie reached out to me and we keep each other going a lot of the time, that’s for sure.”
In addition to the on-field gestures and fundraisers at school over the years, a couple of permanent memorials are being constructed around town.
In Dowling’s case, there is a street named T. Dowling Court in the now-developed area where he was killed on the northeast side of Manhattan.
For Bolton, the baseball team raised money for a pavilion in CiCo Park that is nearing completion.
While Friday night figures to be an emotional time for each senior and their families, this year is clearly a special one.
Schartz said the team has had the boys on their minds all season.
“It’s obviously played a big part in our senior’s high-school careers,” Schartz said. “So early on, and throughout the season, we’ve worn their initials with decals on the back of our helmet. It’s something that we haven’t necessarily talked a lot about this season, but you know it’s always on the boys’ minds.”
Dowling said all the support is indicative of the character of the two boys.
“They were good kids, and we’re their mothers saying this about them, but obviously other people thought good things about them and have continued to do these things,” Dowling said. “That’s humbling for us, and we’re very honored.”
Bolton agreed, saying the community has been significant in the grieving process.
“Those kids — they’ve been through a lot,” Bolton said. “If anything, Angie and Tracie and Tom and I know that the support of friends and family and community goes so far. It’s helped us through this really difficult time. It helps more than people ever would imagine.”