Late Columbia River student honored with annual flag football game

Friends, family and current and former Columbia River football players meet annually for the HP Bowl


Courtesy of Amanda Cowan, The Columbian

Hunter Pearson traverses a muddy Hockinson High School field in October 2016.

BEAU BRADEN, Evergreen reporter

Dec. 26, 2022. A band of 40 gather at a stormy John O’Rourke Field at Columbia River High School in Vancouver. 

The group, mainly comprised of high school and college-aged men, shake hands, give hugs and share laughs.

Dressed in shorts and rain jackets, some in their old jerseys, the men line up and pick teams for a day of flag football games.

Longtime friends and the kids who don the jerseys once worn by those across from them talk smack between plays as spectators in heavy coats hold umbrellas on the sideline. 

An onlooker unaware of the occasion might wonder why such a large group gathered to play in these dreary conditions. But it’s a special day.

The occasion is the HP Bowl. Held annually on the namesake’s birthday, the HP Bowl is a flag football game in honor of Hunter Pearson, a former Columbia River student-athlete who tragically drowned in May 2017.

An outstanding running back at Columbia River, Pearson collected All-League honors and is the school’s last 1,000-yard rusher. Pearson also excelled in the classroom and competed at the state level in Distributive Education Clubs of America. 

As a senior in 2017, Pearson committed to Utah State, where his father, George, played wide receiver. 

Pearson’s mother, Marina, said the game initially surprised her. Marina did not know Dewayne Patterson, who coached Pearson at Columbia River, planned a football game on Hunter’s first birthday after his passing.

“We’ve had a party for [Hunter] every year of his life,” Marina said. “The one thing I can do is show up and celebrate with his friends and make it a party.”

Marina said the HP Bowl means that Hunter’s friends remember him.

On the experience of the HP Bowl, Marina said, “It’s an extension every year of another experience with him, being present and here with you all. It’s an extension of his love for football which we had with him since he was two. So it just means the world.”

Marina said she thinks Hunter would love the HP bowl and would participate every year if the game were for someone else.

“I feel his presence every year,” Marina said. 

Patterson, who remains at Columbia River as defensive coordinator, reflected on what Hunter Pearson means to his football program today. 

“Everything we do revolves around the [No.] 30,” Patterson said. The No. 30 being Pearson’s jersey number, which the team has since retired.

Columbia River hosts the pregame coin toss on the 30-yard line rather than the 50. The program’s annual inter-squad scrimmage is called the HP30 Bowl.

Patterson said River’s former running backs coach, Korey Kier, held his first position meeting of every season at Pearson’s locker “to let them know the tradition and what it means to be a running back here.”

Patterson said Pearson exemplified the “others first mentality,” which the program lists as one of its core covenants. 

Dewayne Patterson stands next to Hunter Pearson’s locker, which remains as a memorial in John O’Rourke field’s locker room.

While he racked up yards, touchdowns and honors, Pearson was always sure to thank his offensive lineman. At the end of his senior season, Pearson treated his line to breakfast at Carol’s Corner, a local diner, where they enjoyed some off-the-field pancakes.

One of those linemen who felt Pearson’s appreciation is Nathan Hockhalter. Once a teammate of Pearson, Hockhalter is now a student advocate and defensive line coach at their alma mater.

“He was selfless; always the hardest worker in the room; always kind; always respectful,” Hockhalter said. “He is the embodiment of everything it means to be a Columbia River student-athlete.”

Hockhalter said this is the Pearson he shares with current River football players.

With the passing of Hunter Pearson, the Columbia River and Vancouver community lost a son, brother, friend, classmate and teammate, though his legacy lives on through the lives he touched and the examples he set.


Note from the writer:

To me, Hunter was like my big brother. I remember when I first saw him at our gym. I saw him strapped into a VertiMax, with three bands on each side of his belt. He lept as if the resistance bands propelled him forward. When he landed, every weight in the gym shook. I was in awe, and he was probably embarrassed that people were looking at him. 

Courtesy of Fabian Tovar

Soon after he made that first impression, I transferred to River. My first interaction with anyone at the school was with the football team for a fundraising meeting. After sales training for teenage boys, we broke into groups and hit the surrounding neighborhoods.

I didn’t know anyone in the room, but Hunter recognized me and invited me to his group. He wasn’t all outward and loud about it; he just raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Hey, wanna come with us?” 

My three-second introduction to Hunter showed who he was throughout his life selfless. I knew early on Hunter was different than others. He worked harder than anyone I knew. The way he spoke was different as well. I rarely heard him speak negatively; if it was, it was about someone or something wrong. 

I am not religious, but I do believe life provides lessons in all moments. A friend of mine once said, “sometimes God takes away a person who embodies what a community needs more of.” 

I think Hunter was that for our community. Hunter spoke his goals into existence and then persisted until he achieved them; he did not care who was right but what was right; he showed his character with actions instead of words.

While I miss Hunter daily, I find joy in how his life continues to touch those in our community.