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Gift honors memory of beloved Elmwood athlete

Gift Honors Memory Of Beloved Elmwood AthleteBy BRIAN BOHNERT

As spectators filed out of Elmwood High School s gymnasium on Feb. 19, 7-year-old Marshal Taft walked onto the court and presented Trevor Solether with a very special gift.
In one arm, a card with a hand-written note. In the other, a basketball signed by each member of the Elmwood Royals boys basketball team following the 2015 homecoming game.
Solether, a senior forward for Elmwood, found himself overcome with emotion when he read the young boy s words.
When I saw Marshal walking up to me, I saw the card and figured it was just saying congratulations on winning a share of the Northern Buckeye Conference title, Solether said. I know we re role models for Marshal and he really enjoys watching us. I never expected it to be something that special.
The note, written on a small, single sheet of white paper, read:
To: Trevor
This ball is very special because Derek signed it. I know he was your best buddy so I want you to have the ball.
Elmwood Tough. Derek Tough.
From: Marshal
Among the names written on the bright orange basketball was Derek Sheldon, whose No. 33 jersey adorns a wall inside the gym.
A beloved member of the Elmwood community, Sheldon was tragically killed on Oct. 1, 2015 when he lost control of his vehicle on Bloomdale Road and struck a tree.
He was just 17 years old.
The basketball a gift from one of his biggest fans to his very best friend was the last homecoming ball he ever signed.
There were many emotions during that night and it made me sad but it also made me very happy, said Solether. Just to see a kid that age realize how much Derek meant to me is unreal. For him to think about having that ball to give me is just amazing. It s definitely the best gift I ve received.
Marshal received the signed ball last year as a gift for serving as the team s first grade attendant for the homecoming basketball game. Almost exactly one year later, he took the ball off his closet shelf and gifted it to Solether.
We waited until they were done celebrating and everything had calmed down, said Emily Taft, Marshal s mother. He kind of did it separately so they could have their own moment.
Emily, whose oldest son was also friends with Sheldon, said it was an unexpected conversation during a December car ride which prompted Marshal to give Solether the ball as a way to forever honor his friend s memory.
Marshal: Hey mom, my ball IS very special.
Emily: What ball, buddy?
Marshal: The one I got last year from homecoming.
Emily: Oh yeah, it is special buddy. That is why it is up in your closet and you can t play with it.
Marshal: Mom, it is very special because Derek signed it.
It was surreal, Emily said, recalling how she sat in silence and cried the rest of the drive home. It had just dawned on me it was the last homecoming ball (Derek) would have signed. For Marshal to remember that and have that connection, it was amazing.
We ve always kind of raised (Marshal) to understand why you keep the memory of people alive through certain things, she added. Looking back several years from now, he ll still know it s more important for the ball to be with the best buddy than in a closet. He understands how meaningful it was for Trevor to have a piece of that memory.
Solether and Sheldon first became teammates in the fourth grade going on to play basketball and baseball together for most of their lives. Their budding friendship quickly transformed into a brotherhood as they grew older.
There was never a dull moment with Derek and he always had me laughing, Solether said. Whenever I needed someone to talk to, he was always there to give me good advice. I always went to him for good advice. He was always right about everything, too. He impacted my life a lot.
Emily said she and Marshal visited Solether s aunt last month and saw firsthand just how deep the bond between the two teens went.
We looked at a scrapbook Trevor s aunt made and there were so many pictures of Derek and Trevor together, she said. The book tells the story of their friendship and the connection they had all the way back to little league. Where one was standing, the other wasn t far.
Not only did Sheldon s death impact his friends and family, but the entire Elmwood community was rattled by the loss.
It was a devastating moment and it was the worst thing that has ever happened to us, said Solether. (But) it really brought us closer together and made us stronger. It gave us extra motivation to win games. Every time we got tired, we just thought of Derek and it was like he gave us the extra spark.
The hashtag #DerekTough became a symbol of motivation for the Royals throughout the basketball season, guiding the team to a 49-39 win over Fostoria High School on Feb. 19 to secure a 17-6 record and a share of the NBC title.
Solether led Elmwood with 12 points in the game.
As it was with every game this season, each point he scored was dedicated to Sheldon.
We knew he was always on the court with us all season, Solether said. It was always 6-on-5. We played for Derek all year and knew that when we won a share of the NBC title, Derek was right there celebrating with us.
Much like how Sheldon s jersey hangs on a wall in Elmwood s gym, Solether proudly displays the basketball on a stand with his longtime friend s signature facing outward for everyone to see.
I can see it all of the time, Solether said. It helps me think of all of the great memories I had with Derek.