Peyton Christopher Stowers was full of life. He loved to dance almost as much as he loved everybody he met.
Family and friends gathered Saturday to honor Stowers, who died June 14, just eight days after graduating with his class from Tehachapi High School during a commencement ceremony held at Coy Burnett Stadium.
More than 500 people filled the THS gymnasium for the celebration of life, with close family friend Moe Cramer giving a moving eulogy.
Stowers was born Aug. 26, 2000, in Lancaster. He moved to Tehachapi at age 4.
"Whenever I saw Peyton, he made time for me," Cramer said. "He always smiled, and he always took the time to look into my eyes, to spend some time with me and ask me how I was doing. He made me feel important, he made me feel like I mattered."
Cramer said that after he heard the heartbreaking news of Stowers' passing at the age of 18, he struggled with question after question, followed by emotion after emotion.
"No answers... just frustration and pain," Cramer said.
Cramer went on to thank the Stowers family — mother Misty, father Brian, and sister Kylie — for giving Peyton as a gift to the whole community.
"Look at this crowd of people. Look at the hearts that your boy touched," Cramer told his parents.
In the Stowers family, Cramer said, love was always abundant.
"And they freely share it with those who are willing to accept it," he said. "We are all healing the Stowers as they are healing us. As we gather here today, love connects us. Love is intertwining us, healing us and strengthening us as a community... This tragedy has made our love even stronger."
Peyton played an active role throughout his years as a student, running for, and being elected as, ASB president in fifth grade, in junior high school, and again as a junior at Tehachapi High.
For the first time in history, he shared the crown as Mr. Warrior 2019 as a senior along with student Mathias Ahlgren. He was also on prom court his senior year.
Peyton loved all forms of sports, but his passion was football. He played as a linebacker, and proudly wore the No. 31 jersey.
During his high school years, he displayed his talent as an actor and went on to win Best Man Actor and other awards. He also achieved academically, and often made honor roll.
"Peyton was always ready for an adventure. ... He always made everyone feel happy, and the community returned the love," said Tom Keefe, one of Peyton's closest friends.
At a contest during the Mr. Warrior competition, Keefe said Peyton shined like a star above everyone else.
"But he never once stepped out of humility," Keefe said. "From his incredible dance moves with his mother, to his perfect explanation as to what it meant to be a Warrior, he was the obvious choice all along. The entire community saw firsthand the talent and charisma that this young man possessed."
Keefe went on to thank the Stowers family for raising such an amazing young man.
"He really was the life of this little town," Keefe said.
Numerous other students, THS staff members and coworkers spoke about the love and respect they had for Peyton, including Mark Marquez.
"Peyton was a real shining star, and a beloved member of the THS family, and there will always be a place for him in our hearts," said Marquez.
Jameson Williams spoke about how Peyton was the best friend anyone could ask for, and that he was a great dancer.
Family members also spoke about their great love for Peyton, and favorite memories.
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight. It's the size of the fight in the dog," said Great Uncle Larry Stowers about Peyton's lithe physical frame as a linebacker.
Peyton's uncle went on to say his nephew played with great heart every time he went on the field.
Said Great Uncle Larry, "It is with that same heart he extended on that football field, that he extended off the field. ... He was the sweetest kid I have ever seen in my life. To me, he was still a child. 'Suffer the little children to come unto me ... for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.' That is what Jesus said, and that is what this reminds me of. Jesus is waiting for him because he was still a little child with the biggest heart, and that is what we will miss the most."