Fryer: Multiple tragedies test Garden Grove's spirit


Every school talks about being family. Garden Grove High actually is.

It needs to be family more than ever now.

On Saturday morning, Austen Christian, an All-Orange County football player for Garden Grove’s CIF-Southern Section championship team two years ago, died in a single-car crash on Chapman Ave. in Garden Grove. He was 19.

On Wednesday morning, another former Garden Grove football player, Robert Telles Jr., 25, died in a car crash on the 57 freeway in Orange.

Telles’ younger brother Kevin died in 2009 after collapsing on the field while playing in Garden Grove’s season-opening football game.

“Too many kids, man,” said a shaken Ricardo Cepeda, coach of Garden Grove’s football and baseball teams.

Monday and Tuesday were difficult for all at the school, Cepeda said, but especially so for the students and student-athletes. Christian had plenty of friends still at Garden Grove, having graduated from there this past June. Alexis Christian, Austen’s sister, is a junior at Garden Grove and the starting second baseman for the softball team.

Then the news arrived Wednesday about Robert Telles. Teachers who knew Robert, who already were grieving about Christian, had to endure another punch to the heart.

“Now,” Cepeda said, “it’s the teachers who are taking it the worst. A lot of us are pretty disheartened.”

When family members mourn, the grieving can be lightened by remembering the good times. Cepeda did some of that Thursday.

Cepeda talked about how Robert Telles kept going to Garden Grove’s games that ’09 season after his brother died. Wearing his brother’s No. 45 jersey, Robert became a spiritual leader for the team. His personality was a natural fit when Robert worked for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and enlisted in the Marine Corps.

“Robert was such a rock,” Cepeda said. “He got the guys to rally in that 2009 season.”

The 2009 football season was a special one for the Argonauts. Garden Grove overcame the tragedy, devoted the season to Kevin Telles and advanced to a CIF-SS championship game for the first time since 1945. The Argos took a 13-0 record into the Southern Division game in which they lost to La Mirada.

Tragedy would not leave that team alone, though. The coach of the ’09 team, Joe Hay, died in his sleep in 2012 at age 41.

Cepeda remembered Austen Christian for his versatility, athleticism and positive disposition.

“That kid was always smiling, whatever the circumstances,” Cepeda said. “A very competitive kid. We get those types of kids here. Tough, competitive kids.”

Christian was Garden Grove League defensive player of the year in 2014, his senior season, when he made seven interceptions. Also a fine receiver, he had 45 receptions for 787 yards and seven touchdowns that season. He was all-league first team as a junior.

Alexis Christian on Monday made a brief visit to softball practice.

“It was real quick,” said Garden Grove softball coach Jasen Sutter. “Just to let the girls know what’s going on.”

A moment of silence preceded the Argonauts’ home game Tuesday. Balloons were released that had Austen’s football uniform, No. 26, on them. Player’s made ribbons that had “26” on the bows.

Sutter said such gestures are typical of Garden Grove.

“The spirit we have at this school, I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else,” he said. “It’s kind of different.”

That spirit has to stay as high as it has ever been in these final weeks of the school year. Cepeda and Sutter are confident that will happen at Garden Grove.

Because, as Sutter said, “I’ve never seen a school so family-oriented.”

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