Theirs was a bond built during early morning weight workouts and beneath bright stadium lights.
They were former high school football teammates and close friends with parents who worried about them, who tried to protect them, who wanted to see what they might become.
Saturday, Dawson Brown, Richie Mays Jr. and Kole Sova died, likely of carbon monoxide exposure, in a camper at a Lenawee County campground, where they were staying for the Faster Horses country music festival at Michigan International Speedway.
Brown and Mays were 20. Sova was 19.
All three graduated from Michigan Center High School, east of Jackson.
“The really hard, saddest thing out of this is just what’s not going to happen for these boys whose futures were so bright,” Kole’s father Jerry Sova said.
Determined to be his own boss, Brown, Kole’s cousin, operated a landscape, lawncare and concrete business. “Live a life that outlives you,” read one of his tattoos.
Mays, frugal and into the stock market, planned on being a millionaire by the time he was 25, his mother Amy Satterthwaite said.
A three-sport athlete who graduated top of his class, Kole Sova, was blossoming from a quiet child into a man with a voice, Jerry Sova said Sunday, July 18.
He was standing at the edge of his Leoni Township living room, a space crowded with Michigan Center classmates, friends, relatives and parents linked largely through sports – dozens of people sharing the joys of the past and overcome by the pain of the present.
They wiped tears. They embraced. They laughed, and then cried again. They wanted Jackson – and any place beyond – to know about the young men they called good-hearted, hard-working and respectful – the sort of guys concerned for others before themselves.
A ‘freak accident’
Only a day earlier, a friend found the three, and two other friends, unresponsive in the camper.
The two survived and were in critical condition, according to the Lenawee County Sheriff’s Office. Their names had not been released. Friends said they were at a hospital in Toledo.
“My heart is breaking for these families and the ones still fighting for their lives,” Satterthwaite said.
Police reported a generator had been running very near the trailer, which Satterthwaite said belonged to Mays’ grandfather. Autopsies were scheduled for Sunday, Jerry Sova said.
Multiple sources told Sova the three died in their sleep; they did not suffer. “So I want people to know that. I think that’ll help, help the community heal a little bit. I think that’s important.”
Instead of putting the generator at the back as Mays’ grandfather suggested, the family placed the generator at the front of the camper because Mays did not want to bother girls sleeping in a nearby tent, Mays’ stepfather Lance Satterthwaite said.
Countless campsites were set up the same way, said Jake Haskell, 20, a friend who also attended the festival.
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It was a “freak accident,” he and others said. Of all the warnings to dole out for Faster Horses, a rowdy three-day party attended by some 40,000 people, carbon monoxide – an odorless, colorless poisonous gas – did not make the list, parents and friends said. Don’t be stupid. Be safe. Don’t get lost.
“Anything besides that,” friend Masyn Shannon, 21, said.
‘I would protect him’
Jerry Sova, his voice breaking, blamed himself, even when told such talk was unjustified. “I should have been there… As a dad, you are supposed to do that. I told him when he was a baby when I used to hold onto him that I would protect him.”
Sova, Mays and Brown were among a crowd of mostly high school peers, a “special group” that remained close since graduation and frequently spent weekends together. They went to the Friday events and headed to bed before dawn Saturday morning.
A group of mothers were staying about 10 minutes from them. “Close enough, but not close,” said Amy Satterthwaite, who kept watch.
She said Mays talked to her on the phone all the way back to the campground.
When no one could get a hold of the men later Saturday, Satterthwaite contacted a friend tenting near the camper.
Soon, emergency vehicles filled the area.
So many people later gathered at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson that some were sent away from the hospital.
Four of the five had played football together at Michigan Center.
‘Touchdown Dawson Brown’
Dawson Brown’s grandfather Tim Miller called him “touchdown Dawson Brown,” said his grandmother Julie Miller. Friends recalled a fourth-quarter touchdown that secured a victory over Reading. “If there was anyone who had the ball at the end of the game, it was D. Brown,” said Michael Hulburt, a friend.
Brown, who also ran track, finished high school in 2019. He went briefly to Jackson College, but it wasn’t for him. He had his own business, Outdoor Overhaul. “Cleaning up the world one day at a time” reads the slogan on its Facebook page. It started with hanging Christmas lights and expanded to lawncare and concrete.
He was competitive, driven. Even with his business, he wanted to show all the people that didn’t think he could do it, said his mother, Kiley Brown.
Brown employed two people and purchased them T-shirts, sweatshirts and work boots, his grandmother said. He had an accountant. His friends joked he wanted to retire at 25 and travel the world.
He told his mother about a $15,000 job and when she questioned his abilities, he said: “I googled it,” his mother said, laughing.
Brown lived with his father, Dave, and his work equipment, taking over the yard, necessitated a barn-building project. The two exercised regularly. Dawson was proud of the resulting muscles, and his dad for coming along.
“D. Brown” – the oldest of three children, including sister Tatum, 15, and brother Braylon, 13 – was a charmer, with a powerful smile, friends said. “Even if you are in a bad mood, he smiles, you smile. You don’t even want to smile,” said Olivia Tumey, 21, of Napoleon.
He greeted enthusiastically, often with hugs, not handshakes, friends and family said.
He was outgoing, talented.
His grandfather was teaching him woodworking and he built two dressers that might have been mistaken for Pottery Barn products, said Julie Miller, sitting across a table from her daughter while visitors trickled through the kitchen delivering food and condolences.
Friday night, Dawson Brown had texted Kiley Brown. He wanted to see rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, scheduled to perform in August at the Jackson County Fair. She booked the tickets that night.
A mama’s boy
Mays was trying to find his path. The pandemic derailed plans to learn welding, his mother said. He had been considering selling insurance. “He was going to try that,” his mother said.
He wanted a wife like his mom, her close friend Kelly Fowler said. “And to live next to me so I could do his laundry,” Amy Satterthwaite said.
The two were close – they held hands at the Luke Combs concert Friday night.
Lately, Mays had been having a good time, taking trips with family. They traveled to a Four Winds Casino and twice to Florida.
Even before all this, Satterthwaite had relished the time she had with Mays and his sister Ryli Mays, 22, at home during the worst of the COVID-19 shut-downs. “We had a great pandemic,” she said.
As with the others, sports had long been part of Mays’ life. He worked out daily with his father, Richie Mays Sr. at Planet Fitness. He was big into fantasy football.
A knee injury prevented him from playing his senior football season, but he was there every game, said his father’s girlfriend, Lisa Echols.
For years, he played basketball with Kole Sova. A couple years ago, they won a national tournament.
‘Lump of Kole’
Kole Sova had been around the sport from the very start. A picture of him as a 3-month-old clutching a basketball sits beneath a living room TV.
His mother Meeka, a teacher, coached girls basketball at East Jackson High School. Jerry Sova would slip his baby son snacks as the two sat in the stands.
He was their “lump of Kole,” born on Christmas afternoon.
The sound of sneakers on the gym floor used to console him, said Meeka Sova, now a teacher at Michigan Center. As he grew older, Kole Sova would tag along to practice. At games, he and his brother Brady – now 17 – would run the hallways.
Through high school, he played football, basketball and baseball while maintaining high grades – he tied for first in his class in 2020.
He came from farmers. The work ethic was in his blood. Since graduation, he began working full-time, first as a temporary worker, at the JIFFY Mix plant in Chelsea. Meeka Sova would stay up to make sure he had a warm meal when he arrived home late.
He did this while taking general studies classes at Jackson College and talked of maybe pursuing a career in engineering.
Kole Sova had the new job, he’d made new friends and he was opening up, growing up, becoming a man, his father said. Masyn Shannon called it “blossoming.”
Friends would spend the night at her parents’ home. Kole Sova used to slip out with a quick wave. A few weeks ago, he stayed for coffee with Masyn’s father Kevin, who called Kole special and polite and praised his parents for his positive upbringing.
“If I could pluck any kid off the street and have him in my home, it would be Kole.”
He was the only young guest to ever make his bed, noted another parent, Amanda Williams.
Kole Sova’s aunt, Danielle Smith, recalled how he would leave the locker room and thank her for attending his games. He grew up to be the man parents want their sons to become, she said, quoting a cousin. “A lot of people felt that way.”
He was smart, but not a geek. Kole had his own style and a swagger. He liked shoes and had a whole collection of sneakers, she said.
For his 18th birthday, the family went to Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant – Kole Sova liked to gamble; his mother said he’d won $300 before Faster Horses. “He was so celebrated. Everything he did was a big deal,” Smith said.
He had so much going for him, she said. “Such a unique, great kid.”
She and others wanted it to be known how much they cared about him, about all the boys.
“They had a good life,” Jerry Sova said.
“I think it is important to focus on that too.”
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