Hundreds pay respects to teen By Daniel Thigpen/Appeal-Democrat
Jesse Drury/Appeal-Democrat Nate McCall grieves over the death of 18-year-old Mikel Moreno during a funeral procession from the Wheatland High School football field to Wheatland Cemetery after a memorial service for Moreno on Wednesday. Moreno, a soon-to-be high-school graduate, lost his battle with leukemia on Friday.
They walked slowly and quietly, nearly 1,000 of them, down Wheatland Road and to the cemetery.
Each family member, classmate and cowboy following the teen's tricked-out pickup truck Wednesday knew him in a different way:
Bike Mike, the football team's right tackle who wasn't afraid to bust out a solo rap in front of his teammates so they could skip a workout.
Mikel J., the young man with a “grin as wide as a goal post.”
Mikel Jay Moreno, the 18-year-old prom king who, while battling leukemia, kept this message on his myspace.com Internet profile: “Never Give Up, You'll Beat It Eventually.”
The popular Wheatland High School senior was remembered by the people packing the bleachers of the school's football field as a gifted kid mature beyond his years who gave everyone a reason to smile - if by the rare chance he wasn't smiling himself.
He died Friday at his Marysville home surrounded by friends and family. They gave him his high-school diploma that day, just short of the school's graduation ceremonies.
“He has taught us all something about life,” said his close friend Ashley Claar, a senior at Wheatland High who spoke during Wednesday's emotional memorial service. “You never know when life will end.”
Claar, 17, knew nobody when she moved to the area as a second-grader. Moreno was the first to befriend her.
“I know you are looking down on each of us right now,” she said, standing between two pictures of Moreno, one of him in his cowboy gear, the other in his football jacket.
The heavyset, 6-foot-tall teenager with the baby face came from a prominent rodeo family with deep cowboy roots, and his death drew attention nationally. Professional Bull Riders Inc. ran an obituary on its Web site.
Moreno's father, Julio, is an acclaimed roper and stock contractor, and his grandfather is Cotton Rosser, patriarch of the Flying U Rodeo.
Bob Tallman, one of the most famous rodeo announcers in the country, gave an address during the service.
Moreno, too, had a passion for rodeo culture. He raised his own bulls and was a member of American Bull Riding Inc. Junior Breeders Association.
His first flank strap - the equipment used to make bulls and horses buck in competitions - was draped on his casket. A symbol of his other passion - a football - sat atop flowers.
The Rev. John Burns coached Moreno during his freshman and sophomore years before the youth's cancer kept him off the field. That second year, even while exhausted from being sick, Moreno never sat out a practice.
One of Moreno's biggest pet peeves, Burns said, was people who complained. He couldn't stand it.
“Mikel was fighting for his life, and he was smart enough to know what true living was all about,” Burns said.
Doctors diagnosed Moreno with leukemia in 2003. He endured monthly cancer treatments at a Seattle hospital and received a bone marrow transplant in June 2004.
Mikel Moreno Gave everyone reason to smile
Hanging on the school's tennis court fence were handwritten, heartfelt messages from students, some who never knew Moreno.
“Hey Handsome, save me a dance.”
“Mikel showed us the true meaning of strength.”
“Save me a seat in heaven so we can catch up.”
Before the long walk to the cemetery, dozens of blue and white balloons bearing similar words were released into the air.
Football players in their jerseys walked out onto the field with a banner reading “Once a Pirate, always a Pirate,” referring to the school's mascot.
Pallbearers placed Moreno's casket into the bed of his prized pickup truck with orange flames on the side and drove it down the field, through the banner and to the cemetery. Hip-hop songs blared from the truck's speakers.
When the walk had finished, Burns looked out at the crowd.
“What a procession,” he said. “Look around you. Mikel brought you out because he changed your life.”
Appeal-Democrat reporter Daniel Thigpen can be reached at 749-4713. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.