Keeping Score

A year later: Remembering Brandon Rich and Caleb Sweeten

Pascagoula athletes Brandon Rich and Caleb Sweeten died in a water-skiing accident a year ago today.

In honor of the two, I'm re-posting a column of mine, titled "Pascagoula left to wonder what was next for Rich, Sweeten," that ran on May 12, 2013:

In talking with people around Pascagoula High School this week, there’s no denying the impact that Brandon Rich and Caleb Sweeten had on the community in their short time in this world.

Both boys had promising futures ahead of them, but they certainly left their mark before they died a week ago in a skiing accident on the Pascagoula River.

As athletes, students and simple teenagers, they were well-regarded by all. With vibrant and driven personalities, they stood out in the locker room and in the classroom. 

Although he was just a sophomore, Sweeten was already in position to be a starter for the football team headed into his junior campaign.

As a 5-foot-11, 180-pound linebacker, he contributed to a Pascagoula football team that came just one win away from the 2012 Class 5A state title.

He also loved to play basketball, played on the junior varsity squad and had a passion for all things outdoors, whether it was hunting or running boats on the Pascagoula River.

Pascagoula boys basketball coach Tony Combs first met Sweeten as a student at Colmer Middle School, where he was coaching football and basketball before he made the jump back to the high school level to take over the Panthers’ program. Combs previously served nearly three decades as the basketball coach at Theodore (Ala.) High School.

“He played football for me for two years at Colmer,” Combs said. “He was just a great kid. He wasn’t one of greatest athletes in the world, but he would do anything you asked him to do and give 100 percent. He was just the nicest kid, well-mannered. Everybody loved him. He worked hard, got bigger and stronger. He was going to be a vital part of the football program next year.”

While Rich’s successful high school athletic career was coming to a close, his best days were definitely still ahead of him.

Rich signed a football scholarship with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, a program known for producing numerous players who have competed at the highest level of Division I football.

While Rich developed a reputation as a ball-hawking safety at Pascagoula, MGCCC coaches planned to move Rich to cornerback this fall.

There’s no reason to doubt that Rich would have eased into the position and succeeded, just as he did at any other sport he played. He was a big reason for the Panthers’ three consecutive runs to the state semifinals in basketball and he was quick to pick up track as a senior.

At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Rich fit the mold of what top colleges look for in cornerbacks these days – tall, athletic and fast.

“Brandon was fixing to hit a growth spurt,” Combs said. “If he hit 6-2 or 6-3, he was going to be a big-time player somewhere.”

Coaches, teammates, classmates, friends and family are left to wonder what could have been next for Sweeten and Rich.

It’s the memories of the two boys that comfort those closest to them.

Pascagoula junior defensive back Jordin Davis played football alongside Sweeten.

“He was just a joyful person to be with,” Davis said. “Caleb just had a smile that would brighten up a room.”

Rich also had the broadest of smiles, brightened by silver braces.

“He is very, very funny and has a sense of humor,” senior Roidrekia Langham said, still speaking of her close friend in the present tense. “He’s very sensitive, even though he’s a boy, he’s very sensitive about a lot of subjects. He’s just a good person.”