PORTLAND, Ore. — Coach Larry Hermida remembers 16-year-old Griffin Hoffmann as the player who brought together McDaniel High School’s varsity tennis team.
“A lot of kids looked up to him,” Hermida recalls. “He was ready to be captain in his second year.”
Hoffmann, who joined the top team at his northeast Portland school as a freshman, also spread his love of the game far and wide, his coach said — growing the squad from 15 players to nearly 25.
Von Butenschoen, now a 16-year-old high school student, recalls how Hoffmann first brought him here and taught him the basics.
“He was like a genius,” said Butenschoen. “He didn’t make you nervous or afraid to screw it up. (He) encouraged you. He made you feel welcome.”
17-year-old Alan Hoang, now a senior at McDaniel, said Hoffmann made him a better player and inspired him.
“He was like a prodigy,” Hoang said. “I saw a bright future for him in tennis. I was really excited about him.”
Such was Hermida. On a Friday night last March, after spring rehearsals, he asked Hoffmann to step up.
“I pulled him aside and I’m holding him, you’re the leader… and he was really excited about that,” says Hermida.
Two days later, alone in his basement bedroom, Hoffmann took a tiny blue pill he believed to be oxycodone — one that turned out to be fake and contained a lethal dose of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“At first I didn’t think any of us could believe it,” Butenschoen recalls. “We say, ‘That’s a joke.'”
“He brought us all together”
As news of Hoffmann’s death rippled through the team and the McDaniel High School community last spring, disbelief turned to shock and then sadness.
“I treated Griffin like my son,” Hermida said. “He had a huge impact on our lives and my life and[on]the kids on the team.”
As the weeks dragged on and the season without McDaniel’s star continued, Hermida, a father himself, knew he had to do something — something, he said, that would make a difference.
Then Hoffmann’s step-grandmother got in touch, wanting to make a donation to the school.
“I said, ‘I think we can do something bigger and better,'” Hermida recalls. “‘We can do more for the community.'”
And so, almost a year after the team lost its captain, the Griffin Hoffmann Memorial Foundation was born, co-founded by Hermida and Hoffmann’s step-grandmother.
It’s a nonprofit organization that Hermida says aims to provide scholarships for McDaniel students to attend college, provide access to teenagers who can’t afford to play tennis, and continue a critical conversation about fentanyl awareness .
And with that mission, and the memory of Griffin, on February 18th at the Portland Tennis Center, Coach Larry and Griffin’s family established the foundation with a tournament that bears his name.
“He literally united us all,” said Griffin’s teammate Von Butenschoen between laps. “And I think we all have this love of tennis because of Griffin.”
“Whenever I score – I try to get better for him,” added Alan Hoang.
After the tournament, the families sat down to dinner — Griffin loved Italian, Hermida said — followed by a presentation on the dangers of fentanyl.
“I think the best thing we can do is educate (our children),” Hermida said. “The more they know, the better they can make better decisions.”
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Fentanyl cannot take memories
Three days before the tournament, teammates, friends and family gathered at Hoffmann’s mother’s house to celebrate his 17th birthday.
It’s a celebration of her son’s life, Kerry Cohen said, and one she hopes to celebrate every year. Cohen told the group a story about a dream she had in which Griffin came to life in a photograph.
“And I hugged him and said, ‘I miss you so much!’ And he said – ‘I miss me too!’”
There was a lot to laugh and cry – but mostly stories.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else in my life that I’ve been able to talk to so freely, so comfortably, with so much trust, other than my parents,” a teammate named Oscar said of Hoffmann.
“I will always remember him as someone who was always there for you, no matter what,” said Butenschoen.
“I would just tell him I miss him,” said Jack, another teammate.
Then Hoffmann’s step-grandfather, Charlie Jett, turned to the teenagers. He delivered a message that left no dry eye in the room.
“Griffin, although he’s not here tonight, gave you a great gift. He will always be with you and the memories you have,” Jett said, beginning to choke. “Nobody could take that away from you. Not fentanyl. None of that. You have a friend with you for the rest of your life.”
“New ball, new game, new match”
Back at the Portland Tennis Center, coach Hermida shared another memory he hopes will live on: Hoffmann’s trademark tennis.
“New ball, new game, new match,” Hermida explained. “Basically, he was saying just move forward. Don’t look at your previous mistake. But just keep going.”
This is something Cohen finds particularly painful.
“He says you can make a mistake and move on. But[Griffin]made a mistake that he couldn’t move on from,” Cohen said.
Speaking of the foundation, both said they hope the way the 16-year-old tennis captain lived his life will live on. Especially, his mother said, when it comes to her son’s generosity and big heart.
“It’s about celebrating him,” says Cohen. “It’s about really keeping his name and mission alive.”
Hermida said donations to the Griffin Hoffmann Memorial Foundation, a registered 501(c)(3) in Oregon, can be made through Venmo @GHMFoundation or by cell to [email protected]