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Wearing Cameron's No. 12 is extra special for Quintin Parsons

Coincidence, it has been suggested, is God's way of remaining anonymous. And it wasn't lost on anyone at this soccer practice one day last month that it suddenly began raining, maybe the best evidence of all that Thomas Cameron's spirit had morphed into transcendent raindrops.

It was so Thomas Cameron: First, that he got to douse all of his boys; next that the rain came as comfort, given that this was one of those August days that was hotter than a Jalapeno.

This was the day the soccer team at Coast Guard Academy would honor a fallen hero — hero here used specifically to refer to Cameron's life off the field. Cameron, a 2009 graduate, died Feb. 28, 2012 as Coast Guard helicopter, designation 6535, went down in Mobile Bay, Ala. during a training flight.

The accident claimed the lives of all four crew members on board.

There would be no retiring Cameron's No. 12 jersey. Funny thing about retired numbers: They're conversation pieces, sure. But they just kind of sit there like museum relics. What if, as Coast Guard coach Chris Parsons thought, the Bears could annually personify No. 12, a way of maintaining Cameron's spirit in a most human way?

And so it has become tradition. Every year, a player gets bestowed No. 12. Cameron's family flies in from Oregon for the day to commemorate the occasion.

"It became 'what can we do to honor him?'" Parsons was saying recently, the late August afternoon that left nary a dry eye. "For me, this was the only thing I could do. I don't have the ability to name a field after him. It's kind of taken on a really important component to the program."

Parsons addressed this year's team with a teetering voice. The reason: No. 12 was designated to his son, Quintin, a Coast Guard senior and East Lyme native. Quintin Parsons' playing career at East Lyme High succeeded his childhood days when Cameron became part of the furniture at the Parsons' home. He was the third child, after Quintin and Georgia.

Quintin Parsons heard his dad announce this year's No. 12 recipient to the team and began to weep the most wonderful tears of joy and remembrance. He had that much in common with everyone else watching.

"Growing up," Quintin Parsons said, "I was 8 or 9 when he became part of our lives. Like a big brother to me. I tried to be like him. This is really special for me. It's something I'll look back on all my life."

And it is a life that Cameron, even in his death, has made better for Quintin Parsons.

"I was a freshman in high school and I came home from school one day and my dad was home. I thought it was weird because he'd usually be home much later," Quintin Parsons said.

Turns out Chris Parsons was home to tell his family about the helicopter crash and Thomas Cameron's death.

"When he passed, I can remember having to tell the team the next morning," Parsons said. "But the hardest thing was to go home and tell my family. I can still remember. He was the first 'helo' (helicopter) pilot they knew. They were shattered. We got on a plane. I will forever thank the Academy for sending me on a plane to speak at his funeral."

Quintin: "When I got home that day, my mom and dad were emotional. I knew something was wrong. When they told me what happened, the news kind of changed my life.

"I really looked up to him, but I didn't know if I wanted to come to Coast Guard. I got to watch swab summer, kids getting yelled at and thinking that's not for me. But that was the moment in my life that everything changed. I started taking soccer and school more seriously."

Quintin Parsons' career at the Academy hasn't been storybook. He broke his leg sophomore year. This would be enough, especially with the tug of soccer and the demands of a military academy, to provide an understandable excuse for everything. Instead, Cameron's spirit has run like a current through his de facto little brother.

"I didn't know if I would have a junior or senior year here," he said. "But I kept thinking of him. I will wear this jersey with pride. His death made me a better person."

This is Chris Parsons' 17th season coaching the Bears. Ray Cieplik, who preceded him, was there for 32 years. It has always been a program about the people, not the games. And there is at least one day late every summer, No. 12 day, when nothing else in the universe exists. Just Parsons, his players, his family and Thomas Cameron's spirit and loved ones, all on the turfed lawn by the Thames.

Unparalleled by anything else, championships included.

"As coaches here, we are lucky if our own children get to come in and spend time here," Chris Parsons said. "The kids we get to coach here are pretty special."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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