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Brighton teenager Connor Saunders woke worrying about football on the day he died
Connor Saunders’s biggest worry when he woke on the morning of April 14 this year was his match that afternoon for Peacehaven and Telscombe FC – his first game back from a knee injury.
At 19, he had his life and a promising sporting career ahead of him.
But by midnight he lay dying in the street.
In the time it took to throw a punch, the lives of everyone at the scene – and those at home still blissfully unaware of the tragedy taking place – were changed forever.
Hundreds of people turned out for a candlelit vigil days after his death.
His family draped Connor’s clothes around them as they spoke to The Argus at their home.
His mother, Darran, said: “He was too good for this Earth.”
His father, Shaun, said: “Our whole life has stopped.”
Among Connor’s closest friends was Frankie Cocozza, who had become a celebrity with his appearances on television’s X Factor.
He rushed back to Rottingdean from Scotland when he heard about Connor’s injuries, arriving at Royal Sussex County Hospital just in time to say goodbye.
The pair had been friends since pre-school and Mr Cocozza was a pall-bearer at the funeral.
More than 200 people packed St Margaret’s Church in Rottingdean, for the service and another 300 listened in a marquee outside.
Mr Saunders read out a letter which described how Connor’s decision to donate his organs had saved the lives of five transplant patients, after signing the donation register aged 16 without telling his family.
The emotional reading ended with a standing ovation.
Parish priest Father Martin Morgan, who presided over the ceremony, said: “It was incredibly moving.
“Connor’s dad, when he spoke, I still think he was one of the bravest men I’ve ever met.
“To stand up there and tell his son’s story was unbelievable.”
He said the community had been united in its grief for Connor.
Fr Martin said: “It drew a lot of people together and I think they are still together.”
Connor’s family and friends have energetically pursued their aim to preserve his memory with the Connor Saunders Foundation.
The foundation has handed out defibrillators at football clubs in Peacehaven, Whitehawk, Lancing and Crawley Down.
The charity has been nominated for a Heart Safe Life Saver of the Year award.
Football coaching is being provided by the Connor Saunders Academy, and an online shop is being set up to sell Connor Saunders merchandise.
Not guilty verdict
On the first day of the trial, jurors had been told Connor’s death was the result of “a tragic misunderstanding”.
The 19-year-old, from Downsway, Woodingdean, was well known as a promising non-league footballer.
He was drunk when he and his friends crossed paths with a group of younger teenagers in West Street, Rottingdean, late on April 14 this year.
Outside the Tesco Express store, Connor mistakenly believed the other group had thrown a bottle in the street.
He advanced on members of the younger group, who called the defendant over to help them.
“Come on then, let’s have it.”
The youth punched Connor, knocking him out.
The 19-year-old suffered massive brain damage when his head hit the floor. He died the following morning at Royal Sussex County Hospital.
After the verdict, Connor’s uncle, Jamie Denyer, read a statement from the family, saying: “Whatever the verdict that was delivered by the jury today, it could not have ever brought Connor back to life.
“When he went out that night after a hard week of work, we could not for one second have thought he would never return home.
“Connor’s short life touched so many people, he was popular, liked and loved, by family, friends and the community. He loved his football, he was full of fun and loved by all.”
The jury deliberated for a day and a half before reaching its verdict yesterday afternoon (November 8).
One juror was excused in the morning after falling ill with a stomach upset, which had meant there were no deliberations on Wednesday.
The Saunders family arriving at Hove Crown Court
Judge Anthony Scott-Gall thanked those watching from the public gallery for their conduct, saying they had “conducted themselves in trying circumstances with great dignity”.
Detective Chief Inspector Nick May, of the Surrey and Sussex Major Crime Team, said: "Sussex Police carried out a thorough inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Connor's death and we respect the decision of the court today.
“Any circumstances in which someone meets an untimely death are difficult and our thoughts remain with Connor's family and friends as they continue to come to terms with what happened.”
The Saunders family thanked barrister Oliver Dunkin and the major crime detectives of Sussex Police.
Mr Denyer said: “We as a family loved Connor deeply and unconditionally.
“We will carry on unbelievable work in his name.
“The proof will be in the pudding, of what we do now as a family, and you will see that the apple does not fall far from the tree.
“God bless you, Connor. We love you very, very dearly.”
Dozens of people, including Connor’s friend Frankie Cocozza, criticised the verdict in emotional outbursts on Twitter and Facebook yesterday.
Mr Denyer said he could not comment on what the family thought of the jury’s decision.
He said: “It is a very, very hard time for the family.
“They will have to have their time to reflect and get their heads around this.
“There are things to tell and they will be told.”
The 14-year-old’s family declined to comment on the case.
Connor’s memory will live on
The legacy of Connor Saunders’s death will be a place for young people to gather and spend time in Rottingdean – if £16,000 funding can be raised.
That is the hope of PARC, the Play Area in Rottingdean Committee, who want to turn a disused swimming pool on the seafront into Connor’s Court – a purpose-built sports court with football goals and basketball hoops.
The charity, whose shop stands in High Street, says it has the support of Brighton and Hove City Council and hopes to have gained planning permission and built the court by April.
Cathy Taylor, the chairwoman of PARC, said: “We know that kids and teenagers go down there anyway and kick a ball around.
“We thought it would be a good idea to provide something different there, so that teenagers particularly have somewhere they can go that is meant for them.
“We want to do it in Connor’s memory.”
The charity already has most of the £70,000 it needs to build the multi-use games area.
It has been waiting for the trial to end to begin its fundraising campaign for the £16,000 it still requires.
Part of that drive will include the sale of a CD recorded by local musicians in tribute to Connor. It is called 5isAlive, referring to five transplant patients whose lives were saved by the donation of Connor’s organs.
The charity is planning to launch its fundraising campaign on November 29 at the White Horse Hotel in Marine Drive.
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