CHAMPAIGN — "He called me friend, I called him brother."
As one of the last people to talk to Central High School senior Ravonte Leshoure-Baker, the news of his best friend's death has been difficult for Central senior Chris Smith to accept.
"It's not easy. I never had a brother, but he made me feel like his brother. I thank him for that," Smith said. "He's still my brother."
Leshoure-Baker's classmate said the entire school was affected by the senior's sudden passing on Thursday, five days before he was to graduate. It was evident Friday, when students wept in the hallways after hearing the news, Smith said.
Central Principal Joe Williams informed students, faculty, staff and parents of Leshoure-Baker's passing in an email sent out Friday morning. The Unit 4 crisis team was at the school Thursday afternoon and again Friday to assist. The cause of death has not been confirmed.
For Steve Ross, one of Leshoure-Baker's wrestling coaches, he and the rest of the team are still in "shock and disbelief" about the player's passing. Ross said it would be hard to forget a student like Leshoure-Baker, who wrestled for the Maroons for two years.
"He had the warmest heart. He was one of the most genuine people I've met. He was always doing something to make you laugh or smile with his off-the-wall comments or jokes," Ross said. "His main goal was to make everyone happy and feel welcome."
Head wrestling coach Merle Ingersoll will remember Leshoure-Baker as a kid who was "different from the rest of them."
"We probably could have learned a lot from him as far as how he greeted people. He would always give me a big smile, ask how I was doing and give me a big hug," Ingersoll said. "Not a lot of other kids will do that. This loss has hit our team pretty hard. It's hit me pretty hard."
Leshoure-Baker also played football at Central. He was known as a "passionate kid" who truly loved his school, said Athletic Director John Woods, who shared a special connection with the charismatic student.
"As the students come in every morning into Seely Hall, I always sit there and look forward to seeing Ravonte. Without fail, each morning he would walk in, shake my hand or give me a fist-bump, wearing his shades and a smile," Woods said. "It was one thing I looked forward to to start my day. This year, he really came into his own. Not only as a student, but also just as a kid. Everyone knew and loved him."
Central special education teacher Michael Slagor said Leshoure-Baker was "notorious for having kind and gentle relationships" with staff members.
"He brought an unmatched energy to my classroom, and I especially appreciated his mature respect of music and musical artists," Slagor said. "I haven't met many students who had such a diverse playlist. He could cheer anyone up in an instant. And I'll miss his jokes. So many jokes."
To honor his memory, a group of students are organizing "Ravonte Week." Every day next week, the plan is for students to dress up in a different outfit to commemorate him and his impact at Central, Woods said.
Tuesday will be sunglasses day because "he always had the coolest shades," Woods said.
Wednesday, students will wear red because that was his favorite color.
Thursday, students will wear any football, basketball or wrestling T-shirts from Edison Middle School or Central because those were the sports he played at both places.
And Friday, everyone will wear Central gear "because Ravonte was passionate about Central," as Woods put it.
"This just speaks to Ravonte and the number of kids and adults he touched in our building," he said.