SARTELL, Minn. — To his family and friends, Tom Bearson was a special gift now sorely missed at Christmas and just a couple weeks shy of his birthday.
"The holidays are a difficult time for many people who have lost someone they love," said his father, Greg Bearson. "That person could be sitting next to you. Their eyes and their smile may be hiding their grief. With that in mind, please remember during the holiday season that there is nothing more beautiful than being kind and generous to somebody you don't know."
Greg Bearson spoke those words in front of a large crowd inside the packed gymnasium at Sartell High School on Friday, Dec. 21, during the fourth annual "Hoopin' in Heaven," an event held in honor of his slain son who would be turning 23 years old Jan. 6.
In 2014, while attending North Dakota State University, Tom Bearson went missing. The 18-year-old had just weeks prior moved away from his hometown of Sartell, where he was an all-star high school basketball player. When his body was discovered in south Moorhead a few days later, police said he was the victim of homicidal violence.
Four years later, the killing remains a mystery. There have been no arrests or explanations, only questions and grief.
Despite this, Friday was a celebration of Tom Bearson's life and one of his greatest loves: basketball.
His retired No. 1 jersey hung on an empty chair along the bench while hundreds of fans in the stands wore bright green "Hoopin' in Heaven" T-shirts.
Among the crowd was Tom's sister, his girlfriend and best friend, a dozen former teammates, his mother and father -- all surrounded with support from the community they've given back to amidst years of heartache and unknowns.
Since the Tom Bearson Foundation started in 2015, it has raised over $150,000. More than $60,000 of that has gone toward scholarships and basketball programming, while $13,000 paid for speakers and seminars that teach responsibility and safety to area high schoolers before embarking to college.
Last Friday night, the Sartell Sabres were hosting teams from Detroit Lakes and Willmar in a double-header with boys and girls teams. The coaching staff and players from these opposing teams showed their support for the Bearson family and Sartell community by wearing the green tees, too.
The gymnasium erupted in cheer during Greg Bearson's halftime speech that had an immediate reaction he said he wasn't quite expecting.
"If you're sitting next to your child or someone you love dearly, give them a hug — a big hug," he said.
Without hesitation, everyone in the stands and on the bench turned to one another to embrace.
"In addition to the hug, please tell that special person that you love them," he said as he watched everyone do just that.
The following evening, Saturday, Dec. 22, the family and foundation hosted an alumni basketball tournament in Tom Bearson's memory – a memory that his father said "is never far from our hearts."
"We're humbled and touched," he said. "You have brought a smile to our face and warmth to our heart."
To find more information on the Tom Bearson Foundation, go to www.tombearson.org.
More about Tommy
The Forum is investigating the unsolved homicide of Tom Bearson in a new true crime podcast, "Who Killed Tommy?" Episodes are available on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play. More information on the podcast hosted by reporter Kim Hyatt can be found on Twitter @WhoKilledTommyB. Send messages, questions and tips on the case to firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 969-0806.