BEMIDJI -- With every point that Christian Pekarek scores, an assist is credited to Tommy B. Even five years removed from taking the court together.
“He was a great teammate,” Pekarek said of Tom Bearson, a fellow Minnesota Comet on Pekarek’s 16U AAU team in 2012. “He was good, super athletic. He shot the ball really well. He’s tough, competitive. I’d rather have him on my team than play against him.”
Pekarek, a senior point guard on the Bemidji State men’s basketball team, met Tom in fourth grade. It culminated in a season of travel basketball together, where the bonds that formed stretched far beyond the court.
“Tom became great friends with those guys. He admired them, he emulated them, he wanted to play as well as they did,” said Tom’s father, Greg. “He thought the world of those guys, and he loved playing with them. He was proud being on that team and playing with guys like Christian.”
Pat Fischer, a former guard at Bemidji State, saw firsthand the talent Tom showcased while teammates at Sartell-St. Stephen High School, which included a run to the 2013 Class AAA state tournament.
“He was one of those kids you knew would hit the big shot. He was just a playmaker,” Fischer said. “The tenacity he always brought every single night, he played the game of basketball with so much passion.”
But fast forward to the fall of 2014, when news came that Tom had gone missing just weeks into his freshman year at North Dakota State. Three days later, devastation hit.
“I was in class at the time,” Pekarek recalled. “I got a text from my AAU coach, Chris Lewis, and he just said, ‘They found Tommy’s body.’ He’s like, ‘I’m here for you guys if you need anything. I love you guys more than anything.’”
Thomas Gregory Bearson was found dead as a result of “homicidal violence” on Sept. 23, 2014. He was 18 years old.
“It was a tough time. A lot of those teammates are still struggling with it,” Lewis said. “They were 18, 19, now they’re 20, 21, 22, in the prime of life. And one of their good buddies was murdered. That shakes you. It was hard.”
More than three years have passed without justice for Tom’s killer. The tragedy still remains fresh -- and understandably so -- but the pain has also turned into a purpose.
“Obviously, we went through a whole lot of grief, and we’re still struggling with that grief,” said Greg. “We started a foundation called the Tom Bearson Foundation. There were many reasons why we started it, but one of the focal points of the foundation is giving back to the community in memory of our son.”
And just as Tom’s hometown community of Sartell has united around his memory through basketball, his former Minnesota Comet teammates are doing the same.
“I think it speaks to the character that those guys all have,” said Lewis. “Obviously they have a shared experience, and it’s a terrible one. But I believe they’re doing the best they can to honor Tom with their play on the court, and how they handle themselves off the court.”
In the wake of the devastation, Pekarek has also made permanent his own tribute to Tom.
“I got a tattoo last year in the winter,” he said, displaying a “Tommy B” signature on his right wrist. “It’s just a constant reminder that he’s always with me, he’s always with all of us… It’s a symbol to not take anything for granted. Every time you step out onto the court, be thankful for what you have.”
“It means so much to us that Tom’s memory is still alive and well through our foundation and the ongoing support of so many people like Christian,” said Greg. “It really does mean so much to us.”
In addition to an annual Tom Bearson Foundation golf outing, Sartell-St. Stephen has hosted a “Hoopin’ in Heaven” basketball night in honor of Tom in each of the past two seasons. This year, Sabre fans will pack the gym on Dec. 21 against Brainerd for the third edition of the event.
“I think basketball keeps people close to Tom,” Fischer said. “Like Christian has it right on his wrist. It’s a constant reminder that he’s always with us.”A legacy that lasts
The Tom Bearson Foundation was established in spring 2015 as a non-profit organization that helps to keep Tom’s memory alive by giving back to the youth of the Sartell community.
The foundation promotes personal responsibility and personal safety for high school students, provides funding for student scholarships and youth basketball programs, increases interest and participation for basketball players of all ages and helps create more opportunities to play the game.
Additionally, the foundation has recognized achievements, dedication and positive spirit put forth by a central Minnesota student athlete through the annual Tom Bearson Spirit Award. Another yearly scholarship is awarded to a student athlete from a school in the Sartell area who best exemplifies Tom’s passion for sports and influences their team and community.
“I’ve come to know that Tom touched many lives in the 18 years when he was here. And I know that he touched many of the lives of those he played basketball with,” Greg said. “But I think it’s important to point out that a lot of the people Tom played basketball with, like Christian, also touched Tom’s life in many ways, too.”
“He’s always on everyone’s minds,” Pekarek added. “Just through memories. Being able to look back through pictures and look back at everything we’ve done together, whether it was on the basketball court or off the basketball court, all the fun times we’ve had. We went through some tough times on the court, but we also had a lot of fun times.”
A Tom Bearson Foundation plaque hangs outside the gym at St. Francis Xavier -- Tom’s school from kindergarten through sixth grade. It reads, “Find what you love and make it your passion.” The plaque welcomes people inside the gym where Tom put up shot after shot, year after year.
“That more than anything is probably gonna be Tom’s legacy because that’s really what he was all about,” said Greg. “Sports were huge to Tom, basketball being a special love… But he was a lot more than just basketball. Basketball didn’t define who Tom was. He was a positive energy force. He was a light while he was here. That’s why people probably won’t ever forget him.”
The Tom Bearson Foundation is online at www.tombearson.org and includes information on Tom’s life, the foundation itself and the many ways in which Tom has been honored since his passing.Pekarek’s final run
As Pekarek enters into his final season in a Bemidji State uniform, the senior captain is leading the Beavers with a different outlook than the one he came to campus with.
“It puts a different perspective into life,” he said of Tom’s tragedy. “Always wake up and be thankful for what you have. You never know when it could be taken from you. And always let people know what they mean to you, because you never know what could happen in this world.”
Pekarek has one final game at St. Cloud State to face off with Tom’s hometown Huskies. The date is set for Jan. 5 -- the eve of Tom’s 22nd birthday.
“It’d be awesome, going out every game and giving it my all,” Pekarek said. “That’s what Tom did: he always played hard, never took plays off… It’s my last year, so I gotta honor him.”
Greg said he always tries to watch Pekarek play when he comes to St. Cloud State. And while Pekarek will have to take the court without his former Minnesota Comet teammates, Greg won’t be the only Bearson rooting him on.
“Tom was the first one to stand up and support his teammates,” said Greg. “There was a special chemistry and a special love for them. And I think the teammates he had knew it.
“They helped one another become better basketball players, but I think ultimately, helped each other become better people… We’re just honored that Christian remembers our son the way he does.”
Though you won’t find him on the Bemidji State bench, Tommy B will always be a member of Pekarek’s team.
“There’s someone up there watching over me at all times,” Pekarek said. “When I’m on the court, Tom is one of my biggest fans.”