Don Dillon thinks about Kyron Vandell every day.
He can’t shake the image of the running back barreling through defenders or memories of his postgame charm, his giving heart, his horrific end.
Vandell was the best player Dillon coached in his 10 seasons at Hiram Johnson High School, a run that stretched into the mid-1990s. Vandell was at the forefront of Johnson’s sporting revival, a power back with burst. The football Vandell carried when he scored two touchdowns to beat El Camino 14-6 in a muddy 1987 playoff game, the school’s first in 19 seasons, is displayed in Johnson’s trophy case as a reminder of his greatness on the field.
“I remember Kyron, covered in mud after that game, and Marsha (Dillon’s future wife) comes down to the field,” said Dillon, who’s now retired. “He stops in mid-sentence and says, ‘Hi, Marsha. Your hair looks so nice!’ Then he hugged her. Mud everywhere.”
Less than three years later, there were tears everywhere.
Vandell set rushing records at Sacramento City College, including 315 yards against rival American River College in 1989. Weeks later, he was a groomsman at Dillon’s wedding.
In July 1990, just days before he was to report to Washington State to play on scholarship, Vandell was confronted by a man in the parking lot of a south Sacramento restaurant. Stanley Beatty shot Vandell in the head in front of about 200 stunned onlookers. Vandell was killed by a “nobody with a gun,” Dillon said. Vandell was 21; Beatty was 20.
Hundreds attended the open-casket viewing, a football resting on Vandell’s chest.
The memories of Vandell came flooding back to Dillon after an arrest was announced Thursday in the killing of Jaulon Clavo, a 17-year-old Grant football player also known for his warm personality who was shot a mile from the Del Paso Heights campus just hours before a playoff game in November. The suspect, Keymontae Lindsey, 16, was arraigned as an adult Monday.
“It breaks my heart to think of it,” Dillon said. “Just like Clavo, Kyron was vibrant, vivacious, engaging, fun, full of life, and they’re gone. We all got cheated with Kyron. We all lost having him around, and all over something so stupid.
“This guy cold-blooded looked for Kyron and shot him. I’ll never get over that. What I take away from that and what happened to Clavo is this: The no sense of value of life that some people have is awful. To be somebody, you need a gun? Then you ruin lives, including your own? I don’t understand it.
“If that’s a young man’s only sense of worth, brandishing a gun and using it, we as a society have to wonder, ‘What are we doing? Or what are we not doing?’ ”
It took months for law enforcement to track down Beatty. Former Christian Brothers High and Sacramento State football star Keilan Matthews played the role of Vandell in an “America’s Most Wanted” episode that helped solve the case.
In December 1991, relatives of Beatty’s in New York, where he was hiding out, urged him to surrender after recognizing him on the TV show. Beatty pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced in January 1993 to 14 years in state prison.
Witnesses said Beatty and Vandell exchanged words days before their fatal encounter.
Dillon remains upset by Beatty’s light sentence. He said Vandell’s mother, Barbara, died several years ago “of a broken heart.”
Dillon copes by remembering Vandell as the kid who would charm him out of his last dollar to feed the soda machine, the kid who pleaded with him to delay the team bus during a Southern California trip in 1987 so he could rush into a store to buy gifts for his nieces and nephews, the kid whose smile lives on.
“Great young man,” Dillon said. “When you have a bus full of hungry kids and you pull up to a fast-food place, the place cringes. But by the time we left, Kyron had engaged all the people in the place to the point they didn’t want him to leave. Same with a bus driver who moaned, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to deal with this many kids for three days?’ By the end of the trip, Kyron had that bus driver hooked.
“He was in my wedding. We have photos of him in our house. He was special, but we all lose out. And then you fear that it’ll happen again, somewhere.”