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Families grieve untimely deaths of promising men

High school athletic standouts Matt Anderson and D.J. Tilche never faced each other on a field, but in a span of minutes they have been linked eternally.

Tilche was Mojave’s top quarterback in 2004 and 2005, and a star baseball player at the school. Anderson, a year ahead in high school, was an all-state football and basketball player at Faith Lutheran.

They grew up apart but shared a love of sports and discovered a passion in teaching.

The two had aspirations of teaching Southern Nevada youth, but now their families are left to continue Tilche’s and Anderson’s dreams of helping youngsters by establishing memorial scholarships in their honor.

Anderson was 24 when a blood vessel in his brain burst; he died at 11:22 p.m. on May 15. Had he not died, Anderson would be a golf management intern today at Red Rock Country Club working with its youth program.

Tilche was 22 when he died a short time later and 2,100 miles away. He fell from a walkway above an Amtrak station in Charleston, W.Va. Tilche would have arrived home this week after graduating from the University of Charleston. Today, Tilche would be trying to land a job in the Clark County school system teaching special needs children and coaching.

“He might not have been a superstar, but he was a super kid,” said his mother, Sandy Tilche, whose son passed for 2,600 yards his last two years at Mojave. He also played baseball and hit .512 as a senior.

“Matt was a wonderful young man,” said Jake Kothe, the Faith Lutheran football coach. “He was good with kids. He’d always take time to high-five my son and even helped baby-sit. He just had a heart for kids.”

Anderson’s impact on the community was evident when more than 500 filled the Chapel and Performing Arts Center at Faith Lutheran for his May 19 funeral. Nearly $9,000 has been raised for a local youth golf program he supported.

“Matt would be honored to know how many people would make contributions in his name,” said his father, Steve Anderson, president of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

A memorial for Tilche took place Saturday in Charleston, where he had graduated on May 2 and spent the last semester student-teaching special education classes. A service for him in Las Vegas last month drew about 700.

“That was overwhelming,” his older sister, Amy Edwards, said of the turnout.

His mother added, “I knew he had a lot of friends but he touched more people than I ever could have imagined. It’s just too bad this is the way you find out.”

Tilche was found on the morning of May 16 a few hours after he fell from a bridge onto a train station platform. Charleston police have ruled his death accidental.

His sister said her brother went out with friends that Saturday night and did not drive because he knew they would be drinking alcohol. She studied his cell phone log and believes he might have tripped while texting. His last text was to his girlfriend at 2:27 a.m. May 16 — five minutes after Anderson died. Within two minutes of his last text, return calls from his friend went unanswered. His body was found about four hours later.

His unwillingness to drink and drive was a mature decision. Walking home should have been the safe alternative.

“You want to ask why does something like this happen,” Tilche’s mother said. “I tell the kids not to ask why. No answer would be good enough.”

Sandy Tilche moved to Las Vegas in 1991 from Illinois, where she was a physical education teacher and coach. She was a counselor for 13 years at Fremont Middle School before having a similar position at Child Haven. Today she is a counselor for the Clark County juvenile court and detention center.

Neither family was surprised Tilche and Anderson selected teaching careers.

Anderson was a bruising presence at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. After high school, he followed his football dream to the University of Tulsa, where he was an invited walk-on. But he became disillusioned with his role on the team and left school after the first semester.

“When he came home from Tulsa we discussed what he would do,” his mother Debbie said. “We told him to find something you love and make it your life.”

One option involved golf, a sport he took up at 13 and played for two years at Faith Lutheran. He began researching colleges that offer golf management programs and settled on UNLV, which has a PGA-certified program.

“He found his passion,” said Chris Cain, director of the UNLV golf management program. Anderson wanted to work with children after his internship last summer with The First Tee of Southern Nevada, a nonprofit organization that promotes golf to children of all needs.

Anderson’s father stressed to his son the merits of loving your vocation.

“He was like every young male who was more interested in working and making money,” he said. “After last summer with First Tee, he admitted how much he loved working with kids.”

Matt Anderson continued to volunteer at First Tee after his internship ended in August.

“He surprised himself with how well he was able to connect with them,” said Danielle Gladd , executive director of First Tee. “He was able to get his passion for golf back on track by teaching in our junior golf academy and open clinics.”

Tilche’s path toward teaching was set after being a four-year starter in baseball at Charleston, a Division II school. Steve Barnson, Tilche’s former coach and mentor at Mojave, advised him that being certified in special education would help get a teaching job.

“D.J. had a fun-loving heart to be the life of the party, but he had an old soul,” he said. “He had such a balance in his life. I know I influenced him but he influenced me even more.”

What surprised Tilche’s family and friends was how quickly he developed an appreciation and joy for working with special needs students at Capital High School in Charleston.

“A light bulb went on,” his mother said. “After a couple days he knew those were the kids he wanted to be with.”

“He called all of us after the first week and said ‘This is it,’ ’’ his sister added about her brother becoming the family’s third generation of teachers.

The Tilche family is planning a birthday party for him on June 30 when he would have turned 23.

“I know there will be a lot of storytelling and laughing,” his mother said from Charleston this week while packing her son’s possessions. “If we don’t talk about him everybody would sit around and cry.”

Their families say that’s the last thing either young man would want.

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