Two fine young men … Gone too soon

Bowers, Lefler tragedy will hurt for a long time

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander issued the following statement on the death of staffer Trey Lefler. “Trey Lefler lived a good and cheerful life but it was far too short. We will miss him terribly. Our hearts go out to the Lefler family and the Bowers and Lambert families.” U.S. Senator Bob Corker released the following statement today following the sad news of Trey’s death: “Our state has lost an outstanding young man today. Trey Lefler’s commitment to public service has made Tennessee stronger and his warm smile and genuine care and compassion for others brightened every room he entered. On this Thanksgiving day, we celebrate all that he accomplished in his short life and continue to remember the Lefler family in our thoughts and prayers.”

Jack Lefler buried his only son Tuesday.

Jack “Trey” Lefler III, loved and respected by all who knew him, was 25 years old.

The pain he felt, Lefler said, was rivaled only by the grief he’d withstood three days earlier. That’s the day Trey’s best friend from high school, Maryville College assistant football coach Cody Bowers, was laid to rest.

“Cody was like my other son,” Lefler said. “He and Cody were friends from seventh grade on. I really lost another son.”

Bowers, an only son like Trey, was killed instantly when the four-door, Toyota Tundra he was driving struck a tree on the Maryville campus around midnight Nov. 19. Lefler, who was thrown through the windshield, hung on for three days as his family assembled at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

Trey Lefler died Thanksgiving Day.

“I was so blessed to have had him,” Jack Lefler said.

Matt Lambert, in the back seat that night, is expected to recover. As he does, three families and two schools try to make sense of it all.

Speed was a contributing factor in the crash. A Maryville Police Department report released two days after the crash also cited evidence of alcohol in the truck.

The how of the crash will sort itself out, Jack Lefler said. Lefler said he will sit down with police in a few days and learn the details.

“I just know there was a terrible accident,” he said. “I haven’t wanted to know much more.”

For now there’s only the sadness of two brilliant lives, Maryville football coach Tony Ierulli said, cut way too short.

“It’s been a tough, tough week,” he said.

Bowers, 25, was the star of the football team his senior year at Loudon High School. Lefler was a captain on the team and the gutsy, point-guard leader of the school’s basketball squad. Lefler was also the Class of 2000 valedictorian.

Their paths diverged after high school, with Bowers going to Maryville to play football. Lefler, who’d broken an ankle with eight games to play in his senior basketball season, had decided to hang ‘em up and focus on academics. To that end, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee. He just didn’t stay there.

Sewanee, Jack Lefler’s alma matter, had recruited Trey and still wanted him. The week before classes began at Tennessee, Jack Lefler said his son phoned home to say: “‘Dad, we need to talk.’”

Trey would follow his father to Sewanee.

“As far as athletics, he was the consummate team player,” Jack Lefler said, “whether on the floor or on the (football) field. On the bench, he was the best cheerleader. He genuinely loved everybody.

“He knew what love was, where it came from and how to share it.”

Trey remained much the same once he became a Tiger, Sewanee coach Joe Thoni said.

“He had a heart of gold,” he said, “and a big one, too.”

Trey’s career at Sewanee would be marked by much the same grit that had made him a star at Loudon. Unfortunately, it would also finish with an injury, a torn ACL wiping out his senior year.

“I told our team … that he was just the greatest teammate you could have,” Thoni said. “He’d give you the shirt off his back and make you feel good about it.”

Trey’s star continued to ascend after college. He served on the Washington staff of Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander. Lefler’s sister, Laura, is the press secretary for fellow Tennessee senator Bob Corker.

Trey was employed as a Nashville field representative for Alexander’s 2008 reelection campaign at the time of his death.

“It’s just a terrible loss,” Thoni said. “My heart really goes out to his mom and his dad and his sister. Whatever you say doesn’t do justice to the life he lived.”

Trey would have one of his best-ever games as a Tiger on a visit to Maryville. The Scots were heavily favored, but Sewanee, Maryville’s fiercest rival, somehow sprung the upset.

“Trey was able to drain a few (against the Scots),” Jack Lefler said.

Bowers’ career at Maryville had gone in reverse order to his best friend’s days at Sewanee. The football Scots were in a tailspin upon his arrival. Maryville would win two games his freshman year, losing them all the following season.

Ierulli was hired to rally his alma mater a year later. Slowly but steadily, Maryville fought back. This fall, with Bowers in his second season as an assistant, the Scots delivered one of the finest seasons in school history, finishing 7-3.

It’s hard to overstate, Ierulli said, how so much of it had to do with the enthusiasm the young and charismatic Bowers brought to the practice and game fields.

“Maryville College was his dream job,” Ierulli said. “He could have been an assistant coach here for 50 years, and it would have been fine with him. He said if there was ever a time I needed something, he’d come over here and coach for nothing.”

As did Lefler, Bowers had a genuine zest for life, Ierulli said. He remembers fondly the day he offered Bowers a job as an assistant.

“It was like a kid at Christmas time,” Ierulli said. “The first thing he did was call his mom and dad. He loved his parents.

“That’s why I’m so heartbroken because what I saw in Cody is what I see in my son.”

The crash happened just before 11 p.m. Ierulli, informed of the accident by Maryville athletics director Randy Lambert, was on the scene in minutes. After returning home, Ierulli repeatedly dialed Bowers’ cell phone to listen to the greeting on the voice mail, the shock of what had happened still all too real to absorb.

The fifth-year coach was still stunned at a memorial held for Bowers on the Maryville campus the following day.

“There are no words to capture your grief and your sympathy,” Ierulli said. “It’s almost inconsolable. There are no words in the vocabulary to express how you feel.”

The memorial for Bowers filled Maryville’s Center for Campus Ministry in minutes.

“We just try to help each other through the tragedy,” Lambert said. “As a department, our prayers go out to the families of all the young men. It just makes you remember how precious the time is you have on this earth.

“Cody was such an outstanding young man who had a passion for Maryville College and its football program. He enjoyed life and lived it to its fullest.

“He’ll be missed.”

The knock at the door came at 1:40 a.m. the morning of the 20th, Jack Lefler said. It was the police notifying him Trey had been in an accident.

Trey would battle, but the injuries were just too severe. He passed away on Thanksgiving Day.

It will be some time before all parties concerned can move on, Ierulli said, but help with the healing arrived gift-wrapped from heaven on the day after the accident.

That afternoon, Bowers’ older sister, Casey Bowers Chaney, gave birth to her and husband Blake’s first child, a son.

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