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'He was my biggest fan'

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Smiling and positive through all of life’s ordeals, there was just something about Dude.

He was born with the given name Dominic, but it took a back seat because, well, the youngest in the family was just that dude.

With the kind of spirit that found joy in the simplest of moments, Dude carried a burden no one his age should have to and did not flinch.

For South Medford High senior quarterback Toren Tuttle, his younger brother and roommate was all of that ... and a touch more.

“He was my biggest fan,” says Toren, eyeing the sky while sitting on a bench at a vacant Spiegelberg Stadium. “He really was. He was always yelling for me on the sidelines.”

Those sidelines lost a valuable voice less than two weeks ago when, on Sept. 21, Dude passed away at age 13 after a lifelong battle with a congenital heart defect that led to numerous heart surgeries, brain injury complications and countless hours stuck in a hospital bed.

“That’s the one thing, we all know that he’s not going through any pain anymore,” says Toren, “and we’re all thankful for that and for having all the time that we had with him.”

Dude had received a long-awaited heart transplant in March and was seen on the South Medford sidelines as recently as Sept. 13, when the Panthers played their home opener.

“He started making little steps, and it was looking pretty good,” says Toren, “and then it was complication after complication, and it just kind of went downhill.”

For someone who routinely deals with 280-pound defensive linemen barreling down on him, it’s not like the 17-year-old standout isn’t used to facing challenges.

Still, losing a brother is worldly different than losing a football game.

There has been no playbook to lean on in this trying time, and yet, here Toren is, accounting for all but two of the Panthers’ touchdowns in his first season at the school after transferring from North Valley High in Merlin.

South Medford boasts a 3-1 overall record heading into Friday’s homecoming game against McNary. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Spiegelberg Stadium.

“Playing football and playing quarterback is hard enough,” says South Medford head coach Bill Singler, “then when you multiply that by being a good student and you factor in personal tragedy that’s happened in your life, that’s a lot to put on a high school kid. But if there’s anybody that can handle it, it’s Toren because he’s very mature, and he’s got things in perspective and he knows how to handle adversity.”

“I’m just extremely proud of him,” adds the coach. “Our team has responded to him and he’s become really, in my mind, the leader of our football team. He’s gained the respect of his teammates over the course of time, and we wouldn’t be where we are without him. He’s overcome a lot, and he’s definitely been a bright spot on our football team.”

The numbers tell you that Toren has had a sensational start to his career at South Medford. He received honorable mention in all-conference voting at Class 4A North Valley, and his ascension to the 6A level has not slowed down the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder.

He has completed 63% of his passes (65-for-104) for 957 yards, 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Toren has also run for 133 yards and three scores for a South Medford offense averaging 373 yards and nearly 30 points per game.

“It’s all about decision-making at that position if you want to be successful,” says Singler, “and Toren has really grasped onto that. If you look at it, his passing percentages are really high, he’s taking care of the football and not forcing the football down the field. He’ll tuck and run it and can make plays with his legs, and that gives us another dimension.”

For the long-haired introvert — Toren insists he wishes he could be as outgoing as Dude — being able to play football has always been a blessing.

“Ever since I was little, football has always been that escape for me,” he says. “With all this stuff going on, it just gives me a bigger reason to play than just to play football. I’m playing for my mom, who I haven’t been able to see while she was down in California with Dude, and now my brother, because I know he’s watching all these games. It just gives me a bigger reason to play the game that I love.”

In his first game at South Medford, he passed for four touchdowns to top Centennial.

Two weeks later against Liberty, Toren ran for 101 yards and two scores and added four more TD passes before piling into a car with his father Aaron and sophomore sister Alaina, who is a cheerleader at South, to make a final drive to be with Dude and their mother Whitney at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California.

“We got there about 6 in the morning straight from the game so we could see him,” recalls Toren. “That was the last time.”

Toren missed one day of practice before returning to the football team last week. In his first game since his brother’s passing, Toren ran for one touchdown and passed for two more during a 21-7 win at McMinnville.

Friday will be Toren’s first game in front of a home crowd, and with his family together again almost.

“It’s been a very tough time for Toren and his family,” says Singler, “but he’ll find strength. He’s very much a kid of faith and a very mature kid.”

Some of that strength comes from his Panther brethren, who have quickly latched onto their affable teammate since he joined them last February.

“All these guys in this locker room have all been super supportive and just been there for me, and I really appreciate that from all of them,” says Toren.

As Toren says, he and his sister have had the benefit of life’s best teacher when it comes to overcoming unfortunate circumstances.

After Dude’s fifth open heart surgery about seven years ago, he ended up with serious brain damage following four strokes and forgot how to walk and talk. The young fighter was able to re-learn how to do everything again, even learning how to be left-handed after being unable to use his right side very well.

“That’s why I do little things on my left side now,” says Toren. “We got team stickers for him, and I put it on the left side of my helmet, and I tape my wrist and write something for him on my wrist, all on the left side because that’s just the side he had to learn how to use, so I figured I might as well do that for him.”

Rooming with Dude since Toren was 7 allowed them to gain a special bond, and Toren says all 13 years of his brother’s life were well-served.

“He’s definitely taught me a lot of life lessons,” says the older brother. “Even picking up his socks off the ground and picking up all his dirty clothes and stuff to help out, he’s taught me so many life lessons that I’m going to use every day.”

“He had something that not everyone has,” adds Toren. “He thought he was a lot bigger and stronger than everyone else and he was super positive and he would always make you smile. He was just a joy to be around, and everyone knew him as just that type of kid, always with a smile on his face. That’s something we’ll always have.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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