Stacy Huntington is a self-described “tough as nails” rugby coach, but no matter what he threw Tyler Rascon’s way, Huntington never wiped the smile from his face.
“I expect a lot from my players and I would grind them into the ground,” Huntington said. “Tyler was always just laughing and smiling the whole way through. I know it should have been reversed, but it was always him lifting me, as the coach, up. He kept me going when things got tough.”
That “infectious positivity” is how Huntington chooses to remember Rascon, 20, who died after he was shot in a Mesa home early Sunday.
Huntington met Rascon for the first time about seven years ago.
“Tyler played high school rugby for an East Valley team, and I coached a team in Avondale on the west side,” Huntington said. “When the high school season was over, Tyler would drive all the way out to play tournaments with my team. It was a big commitment and finances were tight at times, but he never once complained.”
Rascon went on to play for the Tempe Rugby Club, the Scottsdale Wolves Youth Rugby Club and even in national tournaments, Huntington said.
Brandon Thompson, 41, was one of his teammates on the Tempe Rugby Club’s Men’s Team and said even with the 20 year age difference, he considered Rascon to be a “close friend.” According to him, Rascon was always “trying to be the best Tyler he could be.”
“He was constantly finding ways to improve himself as both a person and a player,” Thompson said. “In my last text messages with him, he was telling me how he wanted to take on more responsibility in the team this next year. That was his focus.”
However, Huntington said the playing, no matter how impressive, wasn’t what Rascon was best known for in the rugby community.
“He was a great player and he loved rugby, but he was so much more than that. He was a little brother to all of us, a son to so many of us; everybody just loved him. We were all better when he was around,” Huntington said. “We all felt better and became better because of his presence.”
What happened in the shooting Sunday
According to court documents, 21-year-old Michael Whipple, his girlfriend, Rascon, and an additional witness went to Whipple’s house around 3 a.m. after going to a party. Whipple’s girlfriend went to bed, but the other three stayed up.
The witness told police Whipple grabbed his handgun, a gift he bought for himself for his birthday, out of his nightstand to show him and Rascon. Whipple removed the magazine from the gun, handed it to Rascon and said, “OK, see it’s safe, it’s not loaded,” according to court documents.
The witness said he turned to look at his cell phone when he heard a gunshot. Rascon screamed and fell to the ground. Whipple and his girlfriend tried performing CPR on Rascon while a homeowner called 911.
Rascon was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
According to court documents, Whipple said when Rascon reached out to hand the gun back to him, it went off. Whipple told police he always kept the gun loaded, but did not check before he handed it to Rascon and the witness.
Police searched Whipple’s house and found the handgun and a full magazine inside the gun. Documents state the chamber of the handgun was empty and an additional magazine was found in the nightstand.
Whipple was apprehended later Sunday and faces possible manslaughter charges.
As Thompson saw the news coverage of Rascon’s death, and more specifically Whipple’s role in it, he said he put any “sort of ill will toward Michael away” because, according to him, “Tyler didn’t have an ill-willed bone in his body.”
“Even in his passing, it wouldn’t be possible for Tyler to have a moment of anger or hatred,” Thompson said. “He would have shown his grace, kindness and sympathy. I am saddened, but I won’t let myself be angry. I don’t think Tyler would have wanted that.”
Huntington, his former coach, heard the news of Rascon’s passing from his wife Monday afternoon and said it has yet to sink in.
“It feels like I’m dreaming quite honestly,” Huntington said. “It doesn’t feel real to me at all.”
Since then, Huntington said his Facebook page has been flooded with people sharing “heartfelt memories” of their time with Rascon, all solidifying Huntington’s perception of who he was: “A great kid gone far too soon.”
“There’s so much crap going on in the world and this is the light that goes out? What a waste,” Huntington said. “It’s not fair, but we can only do our best to remember the good. There was so much good to go around.”