Utah Blaze: Skaggs memorial heavy on emotion
Even wearing Rambo-style camouflage shirts - a personal tribute to their fallen teammate - Utah Blaze players could not always hide their emotions Monday morning during a 90-minute memorial service for Justin Skaggs.
A 28-year-old receiver/linebacker, Skaggs died Friday afternoon, two weeks after being diagnosed with brain cancer and one day following emergency surgery at the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center.
More than 300 family members, green-and-tan clad teammates, friends and fans gathered in the International Room at EnergySolutions Arena for a service punctuated by tears of sorrow and laughter at fond memories.
Speakers included Blaze owner Robert Garff, head coach Danny White, lineman Hans Olsen and Dave Skaggs, Justin's father.
Standing behind a podium that was draped with his son's jersey, Dave Skaggs was teary-eyed and spoke only briefly, "because this is so hard."
"He was the kind of guy a lot of people wish they could be," he said. "He even fed that back to his father. He was the kind of guy I want to be."
Dave Skaggs spoke proudly about how Justin "gave everything he had to this town, his coaches, his team and his teammates. . . . He was an extremely honorable man."
Garff read telegrams of condolences from Arena Football League commissioner Dave Baker and Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL franchise in Washington, where Skaggs played briefly before starting his AFL career.
Snyder said members of his organization were "shocked and saddened" by Skaggs' death.
In the telegram, he said, "No one worked harder to make himself better and make his team better" than Skaggs, an avid hunter and outdoorsman who took a commando-type attitude onto the field.
That's why a dozen teammates decided to honor Skaggs by wearing camouflage shirts.
"That's the kind of outfit he loved to wear," Garff said.
Added Olsen: "Justin in his 'camo' was something."
Olsen choked with emotion while describing Skaggs as "the kind of guy we all want to be . . . the kind of guy you want your son to be . . . the kind of guy I hope my daughter ends up with."
On June 4 - just three days after two malignant tumors were discovered in Skaggs' brain - he unexpectedly showed up in the Blaze locker room before a game against Colorado.
"The team really had our heads down," Olsen said. "We were told we would not see him. But 10 or 15 minutes before the game, in walks Justin. Chills went up my spine. The hair on my neck stood up. . . .
"It showed how unselfish he was. He put his teammates ahead of himself, ahead of his fear, ahead of his pain. He put us first. . . . I have never been so inspired by a man, and I've been around some great ones."
Utah beat Colorado, 51-14.
Last summer, Olsen said, a group of Blaze teammates went golfing at Thanksgiving Point.
After a wildly errant drive, Skaggs went over a hill looking for his golf ball. He did not rejoin the group until a couple of holes later because - always the hunter - Skaggs spied and stalked a herd of deer.
"He was really excited," said Blaze kicker Steve Videtich. "He said, 'I got within 20 yards of them.' Then he started calling his dad and his brother on the phone. He said, 'I was stalking them. I was down on all fours, below the brush line.' ''
Said Olsen: "Golf was not one of his passions. . . . [But] when Justin got focused on something, nothing else mattered."
White told of sitting in his office at midseason and wondering why Skaggs had not been playing at his usually high level.
Not realizing he was ill, White briefly allowed the idea that Skaggs wasn't playing hard to creep into his consciousness.
No way, White decided.
"It was like the football gods slapped me and said, 'How dare you.' " he recalled. "Justin gave effort to a fault."
The survival rate of patients diagnosed with Skaggs' type of cancer is two to five years, doctors said. Treatment includes unpleasant radiation and chemotherapy.
"God had another plan for him," said White, adding, "None of us need to mourn for Justin. He's where we all want to be."
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