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Filed 2012: Memorial for lightning strike victim J...
Filed 2012: Memorial for lightning strike victim J...: Hundreds attend memorial service for lightning strike victim Jesse Watlington. Video by Guy Tubbs/news-press.com

How to help

Donations to help Chuck and Alda Watlington pay for their son’s medical expenses can be sent to the Jesse Fund at McGregor Baptist Church, 3750 Colonial Blvd., Fort Myers.

Back on the field

Players have voted to finish the season in Jesse Watlington’s honor. The first game since the accident is scheduled for Thursday against Bishop Verot. Players will wear stickers bearing Watlington’s number (51) and the school will retire his jersey.

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Middle school student Jesse Watlington was cheerful as ever the day he was struck by lightning.

A classmate asked him how his day was going.

“He said, ‘you know what?’ He said, ‘I’m having a great day,’ ” said Pastor Richard Powell of McGregor Baptist Church. “Today is a great day.”

Powell told that story to about 700 people during Watlington’s memorial service at the church Thursday.

Later, on that same day, Oct. 3, Watlington was struck by lightning as he walked to the football field for practice. He was transported to Tampa General Hospital, where he died Sunday after being taken off life support.

“You know what?” Powell asked. “In some ways, it really was a great day.”

That is the message Powell hoped Watlington’s friends, classmates, teammates and family took away from the boy’s memorial service. Watlington, a devoted Christian, did not die. He was merely promoted from this life to heaven, Powell said.

Watlington’s small body lay inside an ornate, white casket with gold trim at the front of the church. He wore a pale blue, long-sleeved dress shirt. Two framed portraits were positioned on each side of his casket.

One of Watlington’s teammates, wearing his football jersey, brushed away a tear with his shoulder as he stared at a bouquet of white flowers next to the casket.

The rest of Watlington’s teammates, also wearing jerseys, sat in two rows near the front of the church. When Powell asked the congregation to pray, the boys bowed their heads and put their arms around each others’ shoulders.

Powell choked back tears Thursday as he described the middle school boys’ first time back on the football field this week.

The high school football team took the younger boys one by one and knelt in the grass with them to pray. Practice was canceled, and coaches and players instead turned their attention toward comforting Watlington’s teammates.

Watlington did his own comforting. He was one of the first in the class to write his teacher a letter of encouragement when her grandmother died, said Eric Munn, headmaster of Southwest Florida Christian Academy.

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He was the type of student teachers love to teach, Munn said. Watlington flashed that smile every day during his work as captain of the school safety patrol, he said.

“He had a bubbling personality that was catching,” Munn said. “Some even said that he was a consistent joy.”

Near the end of the service, the congregation watched a slide show of Watlington’s life from infancy to his 11th year. The images showed Watlington at the beach, on an amusement park ride, at a birthday party and in Christmas pictures with his sister, Carolina, who is in ninth grade.

Community support

Jesse Watlington’s father, Chuck Watlington, was scheduled to speak during the service, but decided at the last minute he wasn’t ready. Instead, Powell and others spoke for him and his wife, Alda Watlington.

“They just say thank-you for the prayers,” Powell said. “Thank-you, thank-you for praying for the family, for Jesse, for the entire situation.”

Donations have been pouring in for the church’s Jesse Fund, which will help the family pay his medical bills. The “Pray for Jesse Watlington” Facebook page has more than 12,500 fans.

Media coverage of his death has spread across the country and internationally.

“My wife, daughter and myself are so overwhelmed by all the love, support and prayers from people all over the world,” Watlington’s father, Chuck Watlington, said on the Facebook page Monday. “We want to thank all of you!”

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