By Robbie Neiswanger
By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Bobby Petrino said he had a difficult time putting together words to express his sympathy Monday night, standing in front of a crowd of 2,800 mourners gathered in Bud Walton Arena.
So Arkansas’ football coach, while choking back tears, looked at tight end Garrett Uekman’s mother, father and sister and simply offered a heartfelt “thank you.”
“Thank you for sharing Garrett with us,” Petrino said. “Thank you for allowing all of our lives to be better for the time we spent with Garrett. I am proud to have known Garrett. He embodied everything good about this football team, the university and this state.”
The Razorbacks, four days away from one of the most important games in school history, joined hands with the Arkansas community in mourning the sudden loss of Uekman during a candlelight service Monday night.
Uekman, a reserve tight end who had played in nine games this season, was pronounced dead Sunday after being found unconscious and unresponsive in his dorm room. The cause of death is not immediately known.
Petrino, tight end Austin Tate and Arkansas chancellor David Gearhart were among those who remembered the 19-year-old during a moving 30-minute ceremony.
“Garrett Uekman was my best friend,” said Tate, who was surrounded by Arkansas teammates Zach Hocker, Luke Charpentier and Brian Beuhner as he addressed the crowd. “He was a fun loving person. He wanted everyone around him to enjoy life as much as he did.
“You couldn’t help but enjoy your time with him.”
Gearhart told the Razorbacks “win or lose, treasure the time you have together. Treasure the time you had with Garrett.” He also told Uekman’s parents their son will receive a posthumous degree from the university and his name will be etched into the Senior Walk.
“I suspect everyone here is struggling to understand how someone so young, so talented, so vigorous, so full of life should be taken so unexpectedly from us,” Gearhart said. “The loss is deep and profound. In your time of grief Mr. sand Mrs. Uekman please know the entire U of A family is holding you close to our heart. We will share any burden that we can.”
The candlelight memorial service was just one of many tributes dedicated to Uekman since his death Sunday.
The Arkansas athletic department has set an “In Memory of Garrett Uekman” page on the front of its website this week. A Facebook page entitled “RIP Garrett Uekman” was established Sunday. Teammates flooded Twitter with thoughts, memories and prayers.
There also was a small memorial just outside the front door of the Broyles Center on Monday. Bouquets of flowers — dampened by the day’s rain — candles, a Little Rock Catholic high school T-shirt and a handmade sign that read “Razorback Family — 88 — Forever” were all placed on a ledge in remembrance of Uekman.
“This is a sad day in the Razorback family and a tragic reminder of just how precious life really is,” Petrino said Monday night. “Moments like this make you realize just how insignificant wins and losses can be and how important people around you are — and Garrett was important to all of us.”
Arkansas’ loss was felt around the Southeastern Conference on Monday, too.
LSU coach Les Miles, whose team plays Arkansas on Friday, opened his weekly press conference by acknowledging Uekman’s death.
“I really want to express my condolences for my team and our school in recognition of the death of tight end Garrett Uekman,” Miles said. “The loss of him to the Arkansas team and to his family is certainly felt. …
“I wanted them to know that we share their pain and their grief.”
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose team was burdened by a similar tragedy with the death of defensive end Nick Bell last year, also offered his condolences to Petrino and the Razorbacks.
“I called, didn’t get to talk to Bobby, called and left a message for him (Monday) morning telling him our prayers are with him, and if we can help in any way, let us know,” Mullen said.
Arkansas canceled its weekly football press conference, which typically features Petrino and two players, to continue the grieving process Monday.
The Razorbacks did return to practice, beginning preparation for LSU before attending Monday’s service.
Tate said Uekman wouldn’t want them to “sit around crying” because there’s a game to play.
Petrino said the Razorbacks will honor their fallen teammate on the field against LSU on Friday afternoon.
“We have a game scheduled this weekend,” Petrino said. “At the Uekmans’ request we will play that game.
“To the outside world we will take the field without No. 88. They could not be more wrong. Garrett will be there planted firmly in the heart and soul of every Razorback that takes the field, sits in the stands, or watches on TV. He is part of us and will be forever.”