by SARAH WEGLARZ - June 1, 2021 - A tribute to Brogan’s strength, selflessness, and the unforgettable impact he left on the world.
The strength of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me. Through the myriad of obstacles and tragedies that will inevitably occur, we are able to rebound, and oftentimes, rebound from such events with even more courage and determination in our hearts than ever before. It is often said that suffering is the greatest teacher, and while no person wishes to experience pain, I think sometimes those who suffer have a much deeper understanding of the value of life and the importance of vulnerability. This is something that I saw beautifully embodied by Bronson Kooy. As I spoke with him about his brother, Brogan, I could feel the love that was shared between them. I knew that Brogan held a special place in Bronson’s heart, and their bond was especially strong because of the hardships they had endured growing up. My heart broke for them both as I continued to learn their story.
When I interview people, I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to feel what they’re feeling and see the world through the same lens they do. But, to be honest, these shoes were pretty hard to put on. Some of the things Bronson and I talked about were incredibly heavy. They were things that I’d never want anyone to experience, let alone experience them myself.
While the sudden loss of any person is tragic, I think sometimes we fail to recognize, or perhaps, refuse to recognize, that there is often more to the story than meets the eye. For Brogan, that “more” was addiction. Topics such addiction, alcoholism, and drug use, especially in a middle to upper class community like Westfield, are heavily stigmatized. People think, “Bad things don’t happen here.” And even if they do, people don’t talk about them. But, that is where I think we go wrong. In fact, by not discussing these issues, we stigmatize them even more. Not only does this make it difficult for those who need help to seek it, but we’re shielding children from the reality of living in a broken world. In cases like these, ignorance is not bliss, and knowledge really is power. The more we expose children to real-life issues, the more tools they have to make decisions that will empower them.
However, our value as human beings extends so much further beyond the label of addict or alcoholic. Brogan is not any less of a person because of his struggle with addiction. No matter who we are or what choices we’ve made, we are all worthy of love, affection, and genuine human connection. And, though a person may have lost their life, their story deserves to be told. So, when the opportunity to write Brogan’s story arose, I knew I was meant to take it. While writing this story has been a deeply intimate and emotional experience, I would not have traded it for the world. It is a true honor that Brogan’s family has entrusted a part of his legacy to me.
- Sarah Weglarz
Selfless. It’s how almost every person who knew Brogan described him. Despite his own battles, Brogan could always find a way to make you smile or turn your day right side up, in an “only-Brogan-could-make-me-feel-like-this” kind of way.
“He was just the type of person to put everyone before himself, and he did that literally up until the night that everything happened,” said Ashley Lunsford (12), a football manager and close friend of Brogan’s. “It was incredible because he was going through his own stuff, battling his own demons, and yet here he was staying up until 4 a.m. on the phone with people that needed to talk, which blows my mind, because I’m not that way. I could never do that.”
In fact, selflessness was such a distinct trait of Brogan’s that it’s what his brother said he was most proud of.
“You could be having the worst day, and he’d go out of his way to do something for you or get something just to make your day a little bit better,” said Bronson Kooy (12), Brogan’s twin brother. “That’s just something we need in this world. He always wanted to make sure you were doing okay [and] it was never about himself. (He was) the most selfless person. It was crazy how little he cared about himself if you were going through something. And that’s something that really just hits home with me, and makes me really happy to call him my twin brother.”
But, if you couldn’t find Brogan turning someone’s day around, you could probably find him making someone laugh.
“He was a very giddy person, (and) he could never take someone seriously,” said Kooy. “He loved to laugh over stupid things, like he would call me ugly in the car and then just cry laughing, that kind of stuff he really loved doing. He loved making everybody smile.”
Sometimes though, it wasn’t even what he said that was entertaining—it was what he did.
“One time we went to McDonald’s after football, and he ordered seventeen McChickens, and ate them in 10 minutes,” said Trent Decrane (9), a member of the WHS football team. “It was crazy. It was hilarious, everyone was laughing, but he was just sitting there like it was nothing.”
Brogan was an entertainer at heart, no doubt. But he also had a serious side and could be focused when he needed to be.
“I felt like he liked to do things right and was proud when he did,” said Jake Gilbert, WHS varsity football coach. “He was certainly capable of working hard.”
It was also something that Bronson noticed in his brother.
“When it was time to be determined, he was always determined, like in the weight room,” said Kooy. “When me and him went, we pushed each other. That’s a bond that could never be broken between me and him, that’s why we clicked so well.”
Not only did Brogan carry this attitude in life, but it was also something he carried with him on the football field. Brogan had been a member of the WHS football program since his freshman year, and both the team and Coach Gilbert played an influential role in his life.
“So when he was in middle school, I don’t know that he got to play a lot, but when he was a sophomore, shoot, he played a little bit of varsity, and I don’t think that that was in his vision, that he was ready for that,” said Coach Gilbert. “So, I think that that was exciting for him, he kind of got an opportunity a little sooner than he anticipated. I really hoped that that would parlay into some good things.”
Brogan in his football uniform - photo by BRONSON KOOY
Sometimes though, Coach Gilbert knew that Brogan needed a little bit of encouragement to keep going.
“His junior year, he kind of got into a funk and one time, I got called into Mrs. (Stephanie) Vondersaar’s office, and (Brogan) told me he was quitting,” said Coach Gilbert. “I just ripped him right there, and Mrs. Vondersaar’s eyes were huge, because I was like, ‘This is BS, I’m not accepting this, you’re being lazy.’ And there was a pause, and then he got up and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you so much. That’s exactly what I needed to hear.” So I just went off, because I knew what this was really about, so that was kind of a unique moment.”
Even though Brogan needed a pick-me-up at times, he was also someone who could give one to others. Brogan’s teammates knew he was dependable, and they looked to him when they needed reassurance.
“I mean he would always pick people up in football,” said Trent Decrane (9). “He was never putting people down, and he was a leader. He was never cussing at people or making them feel bad, he was always picking people up.”
Brogan also had a few other unique hobbies besides football, including the guitar.
“He went to rehab, and he came back, and he was like, ‘I want a guitar,’” said Kooy. “I was like ‘Uh, why do you want a guitar? You’ve never gotten a guitar!’ He got an acoustic, and he was actually decent. I always made fun of him, but then he got an electric. And he was gettin’ in there. But he ended up having four guitars, and he’d get one guitar for a week and then sell it, and then get another guitar. It made no sense to me, but those guitars are special.”
Working on old cars was also something that helped Brogan escape from the sometimes harsh reality of life.
“He started getting into old trucks,” said Kooy. “And this had been going on for like a month and a half, just looking on Facebook Marketplace for that kind of truck. And he found it, and they drove, and it was a manual, and he’s never driven a manual in his whole entire life. It was a 1988 Dodge, and to me, that thing was a piece of junk, but to him, he was just all over it. He loved that thing so much. He only had it for a couple days, and I mean he would just sit in it, that’s all he would do, was just sit in it. And it was really cool, he would go to a friend’s house and learn about it and work on it. He gave me a detail by detail of what he could do to the truck. It was pretty crazy.”
Working on trucks and cars was also something that helped Brogan form relationships with friends and teammates.
“There was a weekend when I pulled an engine in my car out and put a new one in, and he helped me with that, and that was the first time that we had hung out outside of school,” said Finn Grady (11), a football teammate of Brogan’s. “The day after, I went with him when he bought his truck because I was the only person that knew manual to drive it back. That was, I think two days (before he died). I don’t think he ever drove (his truck). I was the only person to ever drive it.”
Brogan’s faith was also something that was very important to him. In fact, one of Coach Gilbert’s favorite memories of Brogan was when he was baptized.
“(Brogan) was just so proud, and we went up to this little church,” said Coach Gilbert. ”They had this tub, and I’m just like, ‘He’s not gonna fit in that tub, I don’t know how they think, we need a bigger tub, but he’s not gonna fit in it unless they do his legs and then they do the rest or something.’ I wasn’t sure how they were gonna do this! Well, they ended up just dunking his head in there. So I enjoyed that, and I just enjoyed the pride that he took in it. I was happy for him and proud of him.”
In school, Brogan knew that he wanted to be a role model for kids who had experienced similar hardships growing up.
“Last year, he took our Westfield Middle School Peer Tutoring Class, and he worked with students who were in a very specific special education program, and that was his passion,” said Mrs. Vondersaar, Brogan’s counselor. “He connected with those kids who a lot of people think are unconnectable, Brogan found a way to connect, so that’s what he wanted to do in the future was to be a special education teacher. An amazing soul.”
Many of his teachers believed that this job would suit him well.
“I will always remember the smile on Brogan's face as he shared his plans to become a special education teacher,” said Stacia Pratt, one of Brogan’s middle school teachers. “I wish he could have seen that dream come to fruition - he had the potential to make a huge impact in children's lives someday.”
Bronson and Brogan with a middle school teacher, Mrs. Cockerham - photo by BRONSON KOOY
Unfortunately though, Brogan passed away on March 20th, 2021. His death devastated those closest to him.
“When I found out, I was just absolutely in shock, the whole world just came down on me,” said Kooy. “It’s tough, this is the one month today (May 6, day of interview), and it’s been the toughest month of my life.”
Emotions ran high after the news of Brogan’s passing was released to WHS students and staff.
“[I felt] an overwhelming sense of anger because there were just a lot of unfair events that happened to Brogan,” said Mrs. Vondersaar. “An overwhelming sense of guilt as far as what I could have done, I needed to go through that process. And then once I got to probably 24 hours, I just was consumed with sadness and anger and then guilt. Definitely, the first couple emotions were very strong, and I internalized a lot.”
For friends of Brogan, his death came as a complete shock.
“I was so surprised,” said Grady. “I had plans with him that day. I had no idea. I knew he was going through stuff, but everyone thought he was better. Everyone thought things were so much better.”
While Brogan’s struggle with drug abuse and addiction does not define who he is as a person, it is a part of his story. And, even though it is a stigmatized issue, it is something that his family believes needs to be discussed, especially with high schoolers.
“It breaks my heart to see kids that think it’s cool, think it’s just so much fun to go party and go drink and smoke,” said Kooy. “And it carries into their adulthood, and they can't learn to grow up from it, so then they lose their whole family from it, and now their kids don’t have a dad or a mom. It never ends. And I think starting in the small town of Westfield, just showing kids what is better out there. Life is great, but it’s what you make it. That’s something that really means a lot to me, and my family, and me and my uncle are probably the biggest advocates for it.”
For Brogan, exposure to addiction began at a very young age.
“Our whole family, the house we lived in was just me, my two brothers, Brogan and Breighton, and my mom,” said Kooy. “All of them, except for me, deal with addiction. My brother, Breighton, he overdosed three times, went into a coma, and nearly died. My mom was an alcoholic, (and) I haven’t seen her in years. My dad was an opioid addict.”
Not only was Brogan exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age, but as he grew older, more opportunities arose for him to make decisions that would impact him forever. However, Brogan’s journey with addiction didn’t begin with the drug that took his life.
“It doesn’t even matter if it’s a nicotine addiction, it’s gonna take you somewhere,” said Kooy. “People think marijuana is a harmless drug. Well, my whole family smoked marijuana, and now they’re all on heroin. It’s a gateway to other opportunities, and once you get that high, you’re gonna look for a bigger high. And people just don’t understand it. They want to have fun with it and play with it. But see, in my eyes, I literally saw my whole family just fall apart from it.”
And, though drug abuse and addiction are taboo topics of discussion in most places, Westfield is especially prone to sweeping these issues under the rug.
“I just think you should be honest and real,” said Coach Gilbert. “I worry about that just for us as a city, because it’s like Disneyland out here, it’s so nice and everything’s so good. But that doesn't mean that there aren't people struggling right next to you. And I think if you don't talk about unpleasant things, then you're not equipped to deal with them when they come up.”
Not only this, but the more issues like addiction and alcoholism are avoided, the more difficult it is for those who need help to seek it. People feel like they have no one to turn to.
“The difference is there’s punitive consequences, that’s the hard part,” said Coach Gilbert. “There are certain behaviors we don't want in our society, but you get caught up. It’s difficult because if you talk about it, you're afraid you're gonna get in some kind of trouble, but if you really need help, you need to come forward. So what do you do? I mean, it’s pretty difficult. So maybe your help has to come from people that are not over you in some way that they can punish you. You at least need to have someone you can go to.”
In fact, one of the reasons that Bronson and his family chose to make Brogan’s struggle with addiction public was because they wanted other young people to understand that their actions have real, potentially life-or-death consequences.
“(Not talking about addiction) is protecting ears, showing how good the world is, but (Brogan) just passed away,” said Kooy. “I mean, I know a couple kids in the school that have overdosed and it’s not a public thing, just because they didn’t pass away. So no one knows about it, and no one’s gonna help them. And at the celebration (of life), we had people there that you could literally talk to if you were having a problem. At the end of the day, no one’s gonna judge you. You have your flaws, I have my flaws, but it’s a matter of life and death. It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s an overdose, it is minutes, literally minutes, of your life. Brogan’s happened in the middle of the night, but Breighton was lucky, three times we saved his life. And people don’t understand how serious it is. It’s like, ‘Oh he overdosed, but now he’s okay.’ I mean, my brother suffers from brain damage now. Do you want your son to suffer from brain damage? I wish people would learn from other people’s mistakes.”
As children grow into young adults and venture off into the next phase of their lives, their everyday lives begin to hold more responsibility. And, even though you may be presented with situations that could result in serious consequences, Kooy thinks it’s important to remember what really matters.
“(In high school), it’s all about parties, it’s not about reinventing yourself, and seeing what’s wrong, and meeting the great people in the school,” said Kooy. “I mean, us seniors, we’re going to college. It’s not gonna get any better at college, there’s more parties, and there’s more peer pressure. It’s not all about having fun. It’s about getting an education and growing, in my perspective.”
One of the core aspects of the Kooy brothers’ life has been their faith. Bronson holds his faith especially close to his heart and has leaned on it heavily since the death of his brother.
“At first, there are so many things going through your head, like, Why me? Why’d this have to happen?” said Kooy. “Everything happens for a reason. Like I said, it didn’t go my way, but my way is probably not the best way to go. It’s all about timing. And it’s hard to think about it. I mean, my best friend’s gone, it sucks, it’s awful. But He’s got a plan, and I trust in that plan wholeheartedly. It’s hard some days, but we pray that He keeps us strong, and keeps us going every single day. We’re blessed with what we have, and I’m blessed to have had the time that I had with Brogan, and I would not trade it for anything. The time we spent together were the best moments of my life.”
Ultimately, both Brogan’s family and WHS staff want students to know that struggling with addiction is not something to be ashamed of. It takes vulnerability and courage to be able to ask for help, and that can be very difficult at times. But, your life is infinitely more important than any judgment people might make about you without knowing your story.
If you are struggling with drug abuse or addiction, please visit:
WHS Counseling Center to contact your counselor
Substance Abuse Hotline for immediate help