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FRIEND'S SPIRIT LIVES INSIDE HIM PARACLETE BACK MOVES ON AFTER EXPERIENCING LOSS.

Byline: Gideon Rubin Staff Writer

LANCASTER - When Jared Nelson faces tough choices, he asks himself, ``What would Matt do?''

For most of his life, Matt Huffman was a close family friend and a role model to Nelson, a junior running back for the Paraclete High football team. Ten months after his tragic death, Huffman's legacy lives through Nelson, guiding him through the difficult times he's since faced.

Huffman was just 18 when he suffered a fatal heart attack - believed to be caused by an irregular heartbeat - while jogging in early January. A standout athlete, straight-A student, and by all accounts a remarkably likable and spiritual human being, Huffman's death shocked an entire community in Nelson's former hometown of Maricopa, Ariz. More than 600 people attended his funeral, which was broadcast live on two area television stations.

But to Nelson, Huffman was practically family. Nelson's family and the Huffmans had known each other for more than 10 years. They'd taken many vacations together and spent Christmas together in Maricopa just days before Huffman's death.

Nelson and his family, who'd just moved to the Antelope Valley last year, make a point of keeping Huffman's memory alive. Displayed prominently in a hallway adjacent to the living room in their Quartz Hill home is a collage of photographs, his old high school football jersey and a proverb he'd always lived by that reads: ``In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your path straight.''

Huffman had these words written underneath the bill of his baseball cap. Nelson, a junior running back on the Paraclete High football team, now has the proverb written on a wristband.

Nelson is still grieving. He tries not to think about Huffman's death too much but acknowledged it's affected his life profoundly.

``It made me think I should work really hard while I'm here and not take anything for granted,'' Nelson said. ``It's really opened my eyes up a lot.''

There were times in the months after Huffman's death when a despondent Nelson considered giving up football.

But then he asked himself, ``What would Matt do?''

``I know he wouldn't want me to quit football,'' Nelson said ``so I just keep going.''

His parents, both teachers, are among many Maricopa-area educators who in recent years have moved to California, where teachers are paid more, and more specifically the Antelope Valley, where housing costs are less. Matt Reese, Huffman's former high school baseball coach at Maricopa, now lives in the same Quartz Hill housing development as the Nelsons and coaches the junior varsity baseball team at Paraclete.

Nelson spent his first year of high school at Rio Mesa of Oxnard, where he was the freshman football team's MVP. He was a standout on Quartz Hill's junior varsity team last season.

As hard a year as it's been for the Nelsons, nothing could have prepared them for the uproar his decision to transfer to Paraclete created within the Quartz Hill community.

The day he officially transferred, his home phone was ringing off the hook, with members of the booster club, coaches, and parents all calling to tell the Nelsons they were making the wrong choice. All the stops were pulled out.

The Nelsons were told everything, from that their son wouldn't be able to handle the academics at Paraclete to that he'd never get to play on the football team.

``It was pretty traumatic,'' said his father, John Nelson. ``I kind of got the idea Quartz Hill doesn't like Paraclete.''

And Jared Nelson got an earful at school, with students he didn't even know walking up to him and asking, ``What are you doing, man?''

John Nelson and his wife, Gina, went to Paraclete to speak to football coach Jeff Cortez, who reassured them everything would work out.

So far, it has.

Nelson has helped lead the Spirits to a 6-2 record this season. What's impressed Cortez most about the normally reserved Nelson is how animated he is in the huddles, especially late in games.

On one of his first days of practice in late June, Paraclete linebacker/tight end Brian Wilson invited him to a Fourth of July party at his home.

Wilson and Jared Nelson have since become good friends.

``We've bonded a lot,'' Wilson said. ``All the guys like him a lot, he's a really good guy.

``He always says the best of everybody, he always builds people up. He's really nice. I know I'm not as nice as him.''

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Paraclete running back Jared Nelson considered giving up football after his friend, Matt Huffman, died of a heart attack. But now Nelson uses Huffman's memory as inspiration on the field.

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 7, 2002
Words:784
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