PORTLAND, Ore. — Coach Larry Hermida remembers 16-year-old Griffin Hoffmann as the player who brought the McDaniel High School varsity tennis team together.
“A lot of the kids looked up to him,” Hermida recalled. “He was ready to be a captain his sophomore year.”
Hoffmann, who made the top squad at his Northeast Portland school as a freshman, also spread his love of the game far and wide, his coach said — boosting the team’s numbers from 15 players to nearly 25.
Von Butenschoen, now a 16-year-old high school junior, remembers how Hoffmann first brought him in and taught him the basics.
“He was like a genius,” Butenschoen said. "He didn’t make you feel nervous or scared to mess up. (He) encouraged you. He made you feel welcome.”
17-year-old Alan Hoang, now a senior at McDaniel, said that Hoffmann made him a better player and left him feeling inspired.
“He was like a child prodigy,” Hoang said. “I saw a bright future for him in tennis. I was really amazed by him.”
So was Hermida. On a Friday night last March after spring tryouts, he asked Hoffmann to step up.
“I pulled him aside and I hold him, you’re the leader … and he got really excited about that,” Hermida says.
Two days later, Hoffmann, alone in his basement bedroom, would take a tiny blue pill he thought was oxycodone — one that turned out to be counterfeit, containing a fatal dose of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“At first I don’t think any of us could believe it,” Butenschoen recalled. “We’re like, 'This is a joke.'”
‘He unified all of us’
As the news of Hoffmann’s death rippled through the team and the McDaniel High School community last spring, disbelief turned to shock, then to grief.
“I considered Griffin like my son,” said Hermida. “He had a huge impact in our life, and my life, and (on) the kids on the team.”
As the weeks stretched on and the season trudged on without McDaniel's star, Hermida, himself a father, knew he had to do something — something, he said, that would make a difference.
Then Hoffmann’s step-grandmother reached out, wanting to make a donation to the school.
“I said, ‘I think we can do something bigger and better,’” Hermida recalled thinking. “'We can do more for the community.'”
And so, nearly a year after the team lost its captain, the Griffin Hoffmann Memorial Foundation, co-founded by Hermida and Hoffmann’s step-grandmother, was born.
It’s a nonprofit that Hermida said aims to provide scholarships for McDaniel students to attend college, to make tennis available to teenagers who can’t afford to play and to continue a critical conversation around fentanyl awareness.
And with that mission and Griffin’s memory in mind, Coach Larry and Griffin’s family launched the foundation at the Portland Tennis Center on February 18, with a tournament bearing his name.
“He really literally unified all of us,” Griffin’s teammate Von Butenschoen said between rounds. “And I think we all have that love of tennis because of Griffin.”
“Whenever I’m hitting – I’m trying to get better for him,” added Alan Hoang.
After the tournament, families sat down to dinner — Griffin loved Italian, Hermida said — followed by a presentation around the dangers of fentanyl.
“I think that’s the best thing we can do is to educate (our kids),” Hermida said. “The more they know, the better they can make better decisions.”
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Fentanyl can’t take memories away
Three days before the tournament, teammates, friends and family gathered at the home of Hoffmann's mother to mark what would have been his 17th birthday.
It’s a celebration of her son’s life, Kerry Cohen said, and one she wants to do every year. Cohen told the group a story about a dream she had, where 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 plenty of laughter and tears — but most of all, stories.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in my life besides my parents that I’ve been able to talk to as freely, as comfortably with, and with as much trust,” a teammate named Oscar said of Hoffmann.
“I 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 address the teenagers. He delivered a message that didn't leave a dry eye in the room.
“Griffin, while he’s not here tonight, has given you a great gift. He will be with you always, and the memories you have,” Jett said, beginning to choke up. “No one could take those away from you. Not fentanyl. None of that s***. You’ve got 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 one more memory that he hopes will live on: Hoffmann’s trademark tennis phrase.
“New ball, new game, new match,” Hermida explained. “Basically what he was saying is that you just move forward. Don’t look at your previous mistake. But just move forward.”
It’s something that Cohen finds especially painful.
“He’s saying you can make a mistake and move on. But (Griffin) made a mistake that he couldn’t move on from,” Cohen said.
Through the foundation, both said that 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 his big heart.
“It’s about celebrating him,” Cohen says. “It’s about keeping his name and his mission really alive.”
Hermida said that donations to the Griffin Hoffmann Memorial Foundation, a registered 501(c)(3) in Oregon, can be made via Venmo @GHMFoundation, or via Zelle to email@example.com