An entire community laid to rest a promising student-athlete on Saturday. In truth, many were coming to grips with the death of Stef’An Strawder, the 18-year-old Lehigh student who died at Lee Memorial Hospital on July 25 after a shooting that same day at Club Blu.
In death he was remembered for the things that inspired those around him: his passion for basketball, his humor and drive for success.
Family, relatives, friends, teammates, coaches and teachers packed New Life Assembly of God Church to pay their respects, many taking 2-3 turns to face him one last time.
As the choir sang, “Power in the name of Jesus,” individuals in pews wept. Some tiptoed near his casket and screamed. Others fell to the ground.
“Stef’An has stepped down and left his seat empty,” former Lehigh Senior High basketball coach Dawn McNew said. “But my instinct is that he upgraded and went first class.”
Tokens of Strawder’s life were placed in the church. A basketball hoop. His No. 5 jersey draped over a school chair. Pictures of the athlete, compiled over years traveling the country playing in tournaments, were stationed in front of his casket.
Strawder left this world just past 18. In three years he scored over 1,000 points. He was one of The News-Press’ All-Area finalists. He was destined for college, coaches said, and almost undoubtedly basketball beyond that.
“There may not be another one better than him,” McNew said.
The funeral drew a crowd of over 600, with individuals lining the aisle to get a glimpse of the student-athlete one final time.
Bernard Edwards, parent of one of the Strawder’s teammates and an old family friend, told a story of Strawder’s willingness to let things go. Another coach, Vincent Mitchell, spoke of Strawder’s confidence, even as young as 10 or 11.
The proceedings, while tragic, also remained grounded in hope.
Those inside the auditorium found reconciliation through song. Many stood during selections to raise their hand in praise.
“We all must remember,” said Strawder’s former coach, Vincent Mitchell. “We all helped shape and mold this young man in some way.”
The Lehigh Senior High basketball team, new teammates and old, entered the church wearing not black but white.
As they approached his casket, they wrapped their arms around each other. They cried. They hugged.
Later, while asked to speak on his behalf, McNew hesitated to find the right words in front of the church.
“What I liked most was watching his face light up each and every time he stepped on the basketball court,” she said.
Kenny Rager, of Fort Myers and a friend of the Strawder family, recited a poem he wrote, illustrating the sudden and tragic nature of a lost child.
It doesn’t really matter if this event was unwarranted or not right
We must accept death’s cold darkness, as we did life’s warm sun light
Today we gather around to tearfully reminisce, mourn and pray
A dear love that was one of our own, has now lived his final day