ST. PAUL, Minn. – The face of Jacob Wetterling was an important part of the childhoods of both Zach Parise and Nate Prosser.
The two Minnesota Wild hockey players both grew up in the Twin Cities area and both remember Wetterling, a boy who was abducted at the age of 11 in 1989 while biking home from a convenience store with his brother and a friend.
The story gained major local significance as families tried grasp the concept of a young child being lost while doing something as innocent as riding his bike home.
“I followed it a lot. From being around here, I’m from Elk River. It wasn’t that far from my hometown. It’s something we talked about growing up,” Prosser said. “I think it’s a touching story that touched everybody in the state. If it didn’t pull your heart out of your chest you gotta check your pulse. He was an 11-year-old boy who had his whole life ahead of him.”
In early September of this year a man named Danny Heinrich, who was interviewed by the FBI early on in the case, said he sexually assaulted, kidnapped and murdered Wetterling, bringing closure to the case that had been open for years. Days earlier, Heinrich led investigators to a farm where Wetterling’s remains were recovered. On Saturday, the Wild honored Wetterling’s memory and his family at the team’s 2016-17 opener. This wasn’t the first sports tribute for Wetterling. The Minnesota Twins wore a patch on their jerseys for a game in September against the Cleveland Indians.
Overall, the event Saturday carried extra significance to the two players from the area.
“He’s probably one of the most recognizable children faces in the state,” Prosser said. “He was all over cereal boxes and billboards. It was probably one of the saddest stories of our time as far as children abducted. It went nationwide and your heart came out of your chest for the parents.”
Parise met with Wetterling’s parents Saturday, gave them a hug and talked about how much their son and the case meant to him. The team also wore stickers for Wetterling on their helmets.
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) October 15, 2016
Said Parise, “I think that picture is kind of almost ingrained in everyone’s brain, every kid that grew up here,” Parise said.
When both Parise and Prosser were kids, their parents made sure to have extra talks about safety with them because of what happened with Wetterling. This created an extra sense of awareness for both players as youngsters.
“It was really scary at the time and I’m sure every kid’s parents had talks with them and for a little while you’re almost scared to leave your house by yourself and I’m sure your parents were scared for you to leave by yourself,” Parise said. “It was an awful time when that happened and just the thoughts that every parent’s worst fear and now being a parent you can’t imagine that happening to your own kid – there’s nothing worse.”
Said Prosser, “It was a simple day for him. He goes to rent a movie and he’s biking home. That’s what I did. That’s how I was raised. Me and my buddies would bike, pick up candy at the gas station and bike home.”
Parise and his wife Alisha were so moved by the situation that they recently decided to make a monetary contribution of $11,000 to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.
The resource center was set up “to educate and assist families and communities to address and prevent the exploitation of children. They continue to work to end all forms of child maltreatment through education, training and prevention while advocating for and serving children, adult survivors and communities.”
It champions 11 traits that Wetterling believed in. They are as follows:
1. Be fair
2. Be kind
3. Be understanding
4. Be honest
5. Be thankful
6. Be a good sport
7. Be a good friend
8. Be joyful
9. Be generous
10. Be gentle with others
11. Be positive
“It’s growing up in that time when it happened. Every Minnesota family – it’s one of us,” Parise said. “You feel impacted by it. You feel impacted by the family and you fast forward to where we are now with my own family to just be in the spot where you can give back to the foundation. To me I just felt like it was important for us to do.”
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