BENTONVILLE -- Ben Pearson opened his locker and immediately caught a whiff of the stench from a dirty pair of socks hanging alongside his Bentonville Tigers practice gear.
"James!" Pearson yelled, then burst out laughing.
Pranks were a specialty for James Maunu, and laughs seemed to follow him wherever he went. Dirty socks mysteriously stashed in a teammate's locker, replacing a good pair of cleats with a pair from of the lost-and-found box, or anything to lighten the mood or to bring a smile to the faces of family and friends.
"Jimmy loved dad jokes and practical jokes," said Marci Maunu, James' mother. "He loved to make people laugh. He brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. We miss that a lot."
James Maunu was 17 years old when he died on June 19 from complications related to Type 1 diabetes. He was 14 when he was diagnosed, said Marci. He'd unexpectedly lost a lot of weight, an early symptom of the condition.
"It was actually my mom who first noticed he was drinking a lot of water," said Marci. "James was one of those kids who never complained about anything. He just thought he wasn't feeling good and it would blow over. I knew he was eating a lot, but being a 14-year-old boy who was playing football, there was nothing abnormal about that."
Marci said it was a relief when they found out what was causing the weight loss and never-ending thirst.
"Once we found out what it was, we were able to learn how to treat it," she said.
James moved to Bentonville from North Carolina prior to his freshman year. Marci said he immediately fell in love with the young ninth-grade Tiger football team, probably because he had already been in several schools growing up.
James' outgoing personality quickly earned him friends on the team, building a bond that perhaps only those who had lockers next to each other understand. There is a brotherhood or kinship that often develops between teammates who are fighting through the same grueling practices and same off-the-field issues together.
Peyton Tedder played alongside Maunu on the defensive line since they were ninth-graders together. Every Friday night this season, Tedder has carried James' No. 70 jersey onto the field for Tiger football games, making sure the team remembers their fallen teammate who would have been right in the middle of the Tigers' 10-1 season heading into tonight's Class 7A state semifinal home game against Cabot.
"I take a lot of pride in making sure James is honored," said Tedder. "I am proud to carry his jersey, but I'd a lot rather be locked arm-in-arm with him walking out of the TAC [Tiger Athletic Complex]. I miss him. We all miss him."
James' death hit the team hard because it came so suddenly, said Pearson.
"I had just hung out with him the night before," he said, "It was a shock to everyone, and honestly we are still trying to understand it."
Counselors were made available to those who needed them and to help those who struggled with the loss of a classmate and teammate.
Tedder said James Maunu was a friend he could turn to when he needed to talk about anything.
"I think that is what I miss the most, is just having a friend who I could go to no matter what it was," said Tedder, who said he will continue to keep the Maunu family in close contact long after the season ends. "James was a true friend, a guy who always had your back. Everybody needs a friend like that."
Football was just a part of James' life whose interests ranged from being a Lego master to a career in sports medicine, or a race car mechanic.
Marci's brother is a dirt-track racer, and James loved spending time learning about engines and how to make cars run faster, she said.
But his first love was Legos at a young age, and he loved building Lego masterpieces.
"He'd get Lego projects that would take adults days to put together and he'd have it built in a couple of hours," Marci said. "For a while that's what he talked about doing, was being a Lego designer, and I thought, man, that would be really cool."
Pearson said he'd often get a big laugh watching James in class taking a mechanical pencil apart and putting it back together again.
"He was always doing that," Pearson said. "He loved taking anything apart and seeing how it worked, then putting it back together. There wasn't anything he couldn't take apart and put back together."
After James was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, he later talked about a career in nutrition, Marci said.
Besides carrying James' No. 70 jersey onto the field each game, the Tigers also have a circular sticker that reads "J MAUNU 70" affixed to their black and gold helmets, a tribute to a teammate taken way too soon.
Marci said she is thankful to the players and coaches for their inclusion and support following the loss of her son prior to his senior year.
"I don't think they expected me to continue to go to the games," she said through tears, "but what the hell am I supposed to do, sit at home? It doesn't make me miss him any less, but watching his friends who loved him continue to play for him, and to honor him, it's been uplifting."
Tedder said the team's inner circle became tighter when they lost their teammate whose death somehow closed factions and helped unite the team to one purpose -- playing for James.
"Our position meetings have been closer and our team is closer," he said. "We've been through a lot together since James died and we've leaned on each other. I know the guys in the defensive line group have anyway. You don't lose a friend like James who everybody liked and it not have an effect on you.
"I want to be the kind of friend to people that James was to me, a guy that you can come and talk to no matter what it is. That's what he was to a lot of people and I feel like that's the best way I can honor him."