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Kickball preserves memories of beloved motorcycle crash victim

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Published:   |   Updated: June 27, 2014 at 09:05 AM

TAMPA — “Dawson Strong” reads the slogan, adorning bumper stickers, bracelets and shirts, and echoing through a few Tampa bars as toasts are raised.

It's even tattooed on a dozen bodies and, of course, hashtagged on Twitter.

The slogan honors Brandyn Dawson, a volunteer responder for the Hillsborough County Fire Department who died in a motorcycle accident in May 2013. He was 25.

It started with a kickball team created by the gregarious and devout Dawson — some compared him to Tim Tebow — to keep his friends from Gaither High School from drifting apart after graduation.

The team continues to play through the Kickball Society in Temple Terrace. Their season begins July 13.

The night after Dawson died, friends and family — including the teammates — met at his parents' home.

“Someone said, 'We have to be strong like Dawson,'” said teammate Patrick Venegas. “And then someone said, 'Dawson Strong' and it just stuck.”

Dawson's mother Leigh Dawson described her son as a beast. He stood 6-foot tall with a sculpted, 250 pound frame.

She pointed to a photo of him playing the Incredible Hulk one Halloween.

“All he needed was green paint,” she said. “He was already the same size.”

But his heart, she said, was his largest muscle.

If another friend had died, it would have been Brandyn, she said, helping everyone through the hard times.

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At a game played days after his death, the team wore uniforms bearing their new name “Dawson Strong” and a photo of their friend cradling his firefighter's helmet. More than 300 people showed up to honor Dawson.

The game ended in a tie, but the team went on to win its championship that season.

A year later, friends and family still crowd the games to cheer. They snatch up t-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing the “Dawson Strong” name.

Dawson's sister Cody had hundreds of bracelets, decals and bumper stickers made to meet the demand.

“People starting using Dawson Strong on Facebook or Twitter for those times they need to be strong to make it through a tough day,” Venegas said. “It took on a life of its own.”

Added Leigh Dawson, “I saw someone with a decal on their car the other day when I sat at a red light. I actually got out of my car and knocked on the window to tell the driver she made my day. And I am not sure she even knew Brandyn.”

The name Brandyn Dawson lives on because his kickball teammates refuse to let it die.

Every new team they play is exposed to the slogan and asked to hashtag game photos on social media.

And Brandyn's teammates hashtag the slogan on at least one social media post every day.

The Dawson family attends as many games as they can. Sometimes, they invite the team back to their house for food and drinks. Other times, they invite them over game or not.

That was the case Wednesday night.

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The Dawson family provided the food. The team brought the beverages. They all shared memories and what Dawson Strong has come to mean to them.

“If you ask 10 different people what it means to be Dawson Strong, I think you'll get 10 different meanings,” said Dawson's father Bill. “He affected everyone differently.”

“It's a lifestyle,” Cody said. “He was always smiling. So when I am Dawson Strong it means I'm finding happiness in what I am doing even when it is hard to do.”

“It means never forgetting those we lost,” said teammate Jenna Ellington. “Not just Brandyn, but anyone.”

“To me it means friendship,” said Venegas. “He was like an angel to all of us. He always looked out for us. You have to be Dawson Strong to your friends.”

For friend and teammate Cory Rose, it means being the best person you can be.

“Brandyn was the total package,” Rose said. “He was the type of guy everyone should want to be like.”

His teammates joke that Dawson's side job was taxi driver because they could always count on him for a ride.

If he noticed someone, anyone, at the gym, working to get back in shape, he was quick with encouragement.

When someone outside the group of friends wandered in, Dawson made them feel comfortable.

“Brandyn was a spiritual guy,” Leigh Dawson said. “He didn't push his beliefs on you but he treated everyone as the Bible says we should.”

He was Gaither High's Tim Tebow, quipped kickball teammate Vinnie Ward — but with a wild side.

“He was a partier. Almost everyone knew Bradyn,” Ward said. “And if they didn't, all you had to do was describe him as the massive guy carrying the bible around and they knew who you meant.”

His played offensive lineman in football. His job was to protect.

He played with ferocity, his mother said, then led the team in prayers after the game.

He graduated from Gaither High School in 2006.

But he was determined to keep his friends together.

Driving around Temple Terrace with Venegas one day in late 2012, he saw a sign for Temple Terrace's Kickball Society. When he called, he was told he had eight hours to put a team together.

That that was all the time he needed to rally the crew. They've stuck together since.

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No matter how busy they are, they find time for the weekly game and for food and drinks at Gaspar's Patio Bar & Grille in Temple Terrace.

Their last memory of Dawson was a Gaspar's gathering: The team couldn't finish their chicken wings and was going to leave them behind, but Dawson yelled for a to-go box.

“Hell, I'll take them home!” he yelled, then, moments later, when the song “Chicken Fried” by Zac Brown played on the jukebox, he led them in a screaming rendition.

Later that week, he was dead.

According to the accident report, Dawson was heading west on Bearss Avenue just after 7 p.m. when he tried to pass between two cars near Lake Emerald Boulevard. He was struck by one of the cars and thrown 50 feet. He was pronounced dead at the hospital about three hours later.

Sister Cody was among the dozen who got tattooed with a version of Dawson Strong — a heart on her back spelling out “Until We Meet Again” and surrounding “B Strong.”

Friend Venegas' arm tattoo includes “Brandyn Strong” and lyrics from “Chicken Fried.”

Leigh Dawson has a B Strong wrist tattoo and built a shrine in his old bedroom — firefighter and high school football gear, sky diving photos and a Bible.

After his death, she found a journal he kept.

“My favorite passage was the one when he wondered if his 10-year-old self would look up to him,” she said.

Fighting back a tear, she said she knows the answer is yes.

“He wanted to be a career fire fighter so badly,” she said. “The day he died, he received the call that he was being brought on fulltime. He never did get to tell us the good news, but he must have been on top of the world.”

Cody hopes to create new Dawson Strong paraphernalia in the coming months to pass out.

“We just want to keep this thing going,” she said. “We're thinking of new ways to get his name out there. He meant so much to so many people and affected so many people positively.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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