Jeff Chai Impressed All He Met : Hawthorne Senior Is Remembered as Youth Who Gave Life His Best

Times Staff Writer

The irony, at first, had been kind: A senior with no previous football experience, and slow afoot and lacking in strength at that, joined the team at Hawthorne High School and became an important and respected player.

He did his best work on the field while getting beat up by teammates as a member of the scout team, the guys who practice as the opposition to prepare the first string for the next game, and few people probably enjoyed it more.

Jeff Chai didn't do it in hopes of becoming an all-league offensive lineman or anything like that, and he was the first to admit it. His goals were more along the lines of improving Hawthorne by helping to paint the bleachers at the football stadium, continuing his studies as an honors student in hopes of going on to Cal or Stanford or one of the Ivy League schools and then of traveling overseas.

Football for the oldest of three children of South Korean immigrants was for the camaraderie.

"We all kind of joked about it," Tony Church, the Cougars' senior wide receiver-safety, recalled Monday of Chai's ability. "But you could tell that he was someone who really wanted to do good in everything. He was also in the band last year, so he just wanted to experience everything. He was that kind of person, someone you'd want your parents to meet to show them what type of guys you hang around with at school."

But now, as Hawthorne returned to the practice field Monday to prepare for Friday's game against Mira Costa of Manhattan Beach, the irony was cruel: Last Friday, two plays into only the second game of his football career and a week shy of his 17th birthday, Chai, a 6-foot, 210-pound offensive lineman, collapsed with 32 seconds left to play. About 90 minutes later, after immediate attention by paramedics on the scene and then by doctors at Robert Kennedy Hospital in Hawthorne, he was pronounced dead.

The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has planned an autopsy to determine what ended the bright future of Hyung (Jeff) Chai so suddenly.

Meanwhile, Hawthorne High mourned, the flag along El Segundo Boulevard flying at half-staff and teammates and coaches wearing black arm bands. Stickers with the No. 60 will be on the back of everyone's helmet, and there is talk that the five candidates for homecoming king, all members of the football team, may withdraw so that Chai may be crowned posthumously in ceremonies Friday.

The Kennedy Medical Center sent a mental health crisis team of doctors, nurses and a social worker to campus to meet with players and cheerleaders if they wanted. Most did, and in that room much of Hawthorne High cried together, too.

"A lot of people got to relieve their anger," said Elgin Lofton, a senior linebacker and longtime friend of Chai.

"Over the weekend, we read about it in all the papers," Church said. "But when you get back to school today is when it really hits you. You don't really miss someone until they're gone, and he was some guy--intelligent and good to be around. You don't find many of those.

"We were like a family, all of us. It was like a member of our family passed."

The Chai who will long be remembered had a grade-point average estimated between 3.5 and 3.95, was teased by team members about going to study after Friday night games, was an active member of the Knights, a service club made up of the 32 top boys on campus, and a member of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Hawthorne. He did incur the wrath of Coach Larry Reed for having to miss a day of practice during summer two-a-days--until Reed was told it was to fly to Boston to take an entrance examination for Boston University.

"He never put anyone down," said senior offensive tackle Julian Camacho. "He was always a lifter."

Said Reed, after a somber regularly scheduled pre-practice meeting: "He lived 17 years. And he lived a lot of things."

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