Sam Reynolds and Bill Leaf never met, but they had a lot in common.
Both have been described by friends and family members as bubbly, hilarious and likable.
And both met the same tragic end.
Leaf, 25, a sports reporter for WSYR, was killed in January of 2006 when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver on Route 81. Reynolds, just 14 and an eighth-grader at Soule Road Middle School, was killed last month when her family’s van was hit — also head-on — by a drunk driver on Route 95 in South Carolina.
“It’s so eerie,” said Maria Leaf, Bill’s sister. “You hear about drunk driving crashes all the time, but how often are they head-on? I heard about it and thought, ‘This family’s just like us.'”
For that reason, the Leaf family has decided to donate half the proceeds from the annual Bill Leaf Kickball Tournament, to be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday May 17 at Onondaga Lake Park, will go to the Reynolds family to help pay for Sam’s funeral bills and the family’s medical expenses.
“I wish someone had been around to help us when we were going through this,” Maria Leaf said. “We want to do everything we can to help them through it.”
Now in its third year, the kickball tournament was created to honor Bill Leaf and to create a scholarship in his name at Syracuse University, according to Jim Lerch, program director at WHEN and WSYR. Lerch is also the tournament director.
“After Bill was killed, we were talking about doing something,” Lerch said. “We wanted to do some kind of charity event — as a station, we do them all the time. We wanted to do something to perpetuate his memory.”
During the discussion, someone recalled a piece Leaf had done for WTVH 5 on a local kickball team in the summer of 2005.
“It was just a hilarious piece,” Maria Leaf recalled. “He won an Associated Press award for it.”
“It was a really great story,” Lerch agreed, “very humorous. It had Bill’s typical dry sense of humor.”
Given Leaf’s story, it was decided that there should be a kickball tournament held in his honor.
“We all lit up,” Lerch said. “It’s the easiest sport there is — anybody can play. It’s the ultimate participatory sport.”
Maria Leaf agreed.
“Everybody from little kids to senior citizens can kick a ball,” she said. “It’s a different and interesting way to bring attention to this issue.”
For the last two years, proceeds from the tournament, with the help of the SU Alumni Club, has funded a scholarship at SU in Bill Leaf’s name. So far, the fund has collected nearly $25,000.
The tournament committee was planning this year’s event when news came that a 14-year-old girl on her way to Disney World for a family vacation was killed by a drunk driver.
“When we first heard, and we heard that it was an almost identical situation, we didn’t talk about it much as a committee, because we didn’t want to take away from Bill’s event,” Lerch said. “We thought about it, but we didn’t want his family to think the event wasn’t about him.”
But Maria Leaf, who now lives in Pittsburgh, had the same thoughts.
“I saw something on the news and then I heard about it from some of my friends in Central New York,” she said. “I was home a few weeks ago and doing an interview with Channel 5 and it dawned on me — why not help [the Reynolds family] out?”
Maria Leaf called Lerch and made the suggestion to split the tournament proceeds between the scholarship and the grieving family.
“It really took a load off our shoulders,” Lerch said. “We really wanted to help them out, but we weren’t sure how to approach the Leafs. We were so glad Maria brought it up.”
Lerch said Leaf was more interested in helping stop drunk driving than just memorializing her brother.
“She said, ‘It’s not just about my brother, it’s about the cause,'” Lerch said. “Her goal is to keep this from happening to another family.”
So Leaf contacted Kathy DeLong, whose sister, Brenda Reynolds, is Sam’s stepmother. Brenda was seriously injured in the collision. DeLong has been acting as the family’s spokesperson since the accident.
“I talked to her, and she said they wanted to participate,” Leaf said. “They were thrilled.”
“We were blown away by the Leaf family’s generosity,” DeLong said. “It’s so amazing of them to do this for us. And the kickball tournament is such a great event.”
Leaving a legacy
Maria Leaf said her brother leaves behind a whole lot more than a kickball game.
Shortly after his death, the state of New York passed the Bill Leaf-Brandi Woods Law, which calls for stiffer penalties for vehicular crimes committed by people who were previously convicted of an alcohol- or drug-related driving while intoxicated or driving while ability impaired offense.
“I think Bill would have been very proud of the fact that his death wasn’t in vain,” she said. “I think he’d be glad to see us helping another family that’s going through what we went through.”
DeLong said she and her family are extremely grateful for the Leaf family’s support, as well as the support they’ve received from the entire community.
“It’s just been amazing,” she said. “People who don’t even know us are donating money and helping us out. We can’t thank everyone enough.”
DeLong said her family is happy to be able to help spread the word about the dangers of drunk driving. She said the huge response to the tournament — over 30 teams are signed up to play — should mean more people will hear that message.
“Registration is closed, but we encourage people to attend,” she said. “The more people who attend, the more people will get the message, and maybe we can stop this from happening to someone else.”
Criminal charges filed
Meanwhile, in Clarendon County, South Carolina, Raphael Gonzalez Martinez is awaiting indictment on charges of felony driving under the influence involving a death and felony driving under the influence involving great bodily injury. Martinez was allegedly driving the vehicle that struck the Reynolds family’s van. According to the Clarendon County Solicitor’s Office, a warrant for his indictment was received late last month. It will now go before a grand jury.
According to the solicitor’s office, Martinez’s immigration status has not yet been determined.
Brenda Reynolds remains hospitalized, though DeLong said she has made “tremendous physical strides.”
“She’s out of ICU and she’s breathing on her own,” DeLong said. “But she hasn’t been told about Sam yet. We have to make sure she’s healed enough physically that the news won’t set her back.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.