As a journalist, when it comes to covering high school sports, local student-athletes come and go. It is a certainty, as each of these children are “signed” to no more than four-year deals before they are off to “free agency,” hopefully to enjoy life’s next adventure.

As a small town sports reporter, I often get a glimpse of these student-athletes for the first time at the youth level taking photos at peewee and Little League championship games, for example.

Often, I figuratively pick out one or two youngsters, with the thought: “Wow, I’ll definitely be seeing more of them in the future” as I witness them dominate the competition.

Then those children move on to middle school, where it quickly becomes clear which youngsters will make the successful jump to the next level of competitive sports. You see them over the course of the next few years blossom as they begin to grow into their bodies and realize how much they are capable of athletically.

Then, before you know it, those children turn into teenagers and head to high school, likely with dreams of state athletic championships dancing in their heads.

For many of the student-athletes, we find ourselves taking their photos at different events for the better part of a decade, depending when their athletic “careers” start and end. I’ll find myself sometimes looking through old newspapers or online to reference a past story and see a photo of a young athlete in middle school and realize I just watched them play in a high school regional championship game. Time certainly flies.

While the job of a sports reporter, on the surface, is to be as objective as possible when covering events, inside you cannot help but root for the local youngsters as they put it all on the line for the love of their respective sports.

In a way, I see many of these young people as an extension of my own family.

It is not as outrageous a claim as one may think. In any given week, it is a strong possibility that I will see more of those children than any of my immediate family members. Such is the nature of the job.

And, just like family members, you create bonds with them, some stronger than others.

Perhaps they are one of the area’s, region’s or state’s top athletes and you interview them for stories. Maybe, while at an event, they go out of their way to talk to you at an early age and you develop a budding rapport with them that stretches through the years. Maybe they know your name. Maybe they know you strictly as “the camera guy” or “the guy from the newspaper.”

When you see them succeed, you are happy for them. When you see them fail, it can be tough to watch. But, as a reporter, you do your best to remain objective and do your job.

When a young person who you knew as a local student-athlete dies, often in tragic circumstances, it is difficult to endure, for no one more so than the grieving families. The Midcoast certainly has had its share of tragedies involving the passing of local youngsters in recent years, most recently last week when a former area student-athlete, while attending the University of Maine at Orono, died in an automobile accident.

For me, that type of news creates a deep feeling of sadness that is difficult to put into words.

We observe these young people over the years and then, in an instant, they turn the page and move on to the next chapter of their lives, making the transition from the cozy confines of their parents’ houses and the nurturing walls of their high schools and head out into the real world.

With a lot of these young people, you develop a friendship, of sorts, that sometimes extends outside the parameters of those doing the reporting and those being reported on. You find yourself wondering if they will become future teachers, coaches, doctors or lobster fishermen. Perhaps these youngsters will grow up and make a difference in their communities, the state, the country or even the world.

And, in an instant, it can all be taken away. And, in the aftermath, families are left to pick up the pieces and struggle to put their lives back into some semblance of order. It is all so difficult to understand and put in perspective.

Because they are too young to understand, many of these youths take for granted the impact they make on those who have the privilege of watching them grow as athletes and people. The eyes of the community always are on them as the successes of a high school’s athletic programs so often are a reflection on the successes of the communities themselves.

When a team experiences success, as a community we cheer together. And when horrific tragedies strike, as a community, we also grieve together for the families these events effect.

Like many, when tragedies hit small communities like ours, and take away our young people way before their time, I think back to the last time I saw the person, which for me almost always is as they walk off a field or court for the final time as a senior. In all likelihood, we have taken many photos of them, documenting their accomplishments over the years, and maybe one particular image we have captured of them stands out among the rest. Sort of a microcosm of who they are as an athlete and perhaps even as a person.

While the untimely death of a young person is indeed tragic, it also serves as a harsh reminder to the student-athletes we in the media publicize that tomorrow is not a guarantee for anyone, no matter how careful we may be or no matter the precautions we take.

The feeling of mortality is particularly sobering and hits closer to home for me than it did before, now that I am a bit older with two young sons.

I think back to games I have seen these young people play in or the unbelievable athletic feats I’ve seen them accomplish and many of the memories are still fresh. Much the way the recollections of many of these youngsters will be for years to come through the photos we have taken and the moments we have captured in our memories.

For the hundreds of student-athletes we see mature and realize athletic success, there is another who emerges as a cautionary tale of how unfair life can sometimes be. But no lesson is without a moral, and the moral for this column is simple.

To all Midcoast student-athletes, be smart, safe and live for today. To the parents of these amazing children, hug your sons and daughters often and tell them how much you love them and how proud you are of them. And never — ever — take life for granted.

Courier Publications Associate Sports Director Mark Haskell can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email at mhaskell@villagesoup.com.