FREEPORT — A charity lacrosse game to benefit the family of a Freeport High School student who died this month in an accident on the Saco River in Buxton attracted about 1,000 people Sunday afternoon, including dozens of high school and college lacrosse players from across the state, New England and elsewhere.

The memorial lacrosse contest, which was held at Freeport High School’s new turf field, was created to benefit Steel Crawford’s family. The so-called SteelStrong charity game was organized by students who either knew the Freeport High School lacrosse captain or competed against Crawford.

Ryan Baker of Brunswick, second from right, standing next to Steel Crawford, right, in an undated photo, helped organize Sunday’s event. Photo courtesy of Ryan Baker

Ryan Baker, a North Yarmouth Academy lacrosse player, was close friends with Crawford. They met on the playing field and, as Baker put it, “we just hit it off.” Baker and Freeport High School boys lacrosse coach Geoff Arris organized Sunday’s event.

“When I came up with this idea, I thought we were going to get 30 players and maybe 100 fans, but this was unbelievable,” said Baker, who lives in Brunswick.

The 17-year-old Crawford, a star lacrosse player at Freeport High School, died Aug. 9 after jumping from a rope swing and landing awkwardly in the Saco River. Game wardens, who recovered his body, said he landed in deep water and never surfaced.The rope swing was located at Pleasant Point Park in Buxton. Crawford was swimming with friends at the time of the accident, according to the Maine Warden Service.

His death devastated not only his family – parents Ben and Melanie Crawford, as well as three sisters – but the entire Freeport High School community and the state’s tightly knit lacrosse network. The Crawfords moved to Freeport in 2010.

Sunday’s tribute was moving. Hundreds of spectators, many wearing SteelStrong T-shirts, clapped and looked on as two teams, consisting of  100 lacrosse players, emerged from the locker room around 5 p.m. Crawford’s parents and sisters led the procession of players onto the field.

“Steel was my best friend,” said Clay Canterbury, a 17-year-old Freeport senior who eulogized Crawford at Saturday’s funeral service.

Though Canterbury did not play lacrosse, the two young men hit it off at an early age and had been friends since the sixth grade. He said Crawford was full of life, a happy-go-lucky person and a true leader, on and off the playing field.

“We can choose to be sad or we take Steel’s life as an example and use his energy to lead a better life,” Canterbury said.

Aisling Flaherty – a senior at Cheverus High School in Portland who plays varsity lacrosse for the girls’ team – became close friends with Crawford about a year ago.

“Steel was one of the best people I ever met,” Flaherty said. “He was super real, never a fake person.”

Flaherty said Sunday’s game was a healthy way to start the process of recovering from Crawford’s death. “I feel as though the lacrosse community from around Maine has come together.”

The teams that competed in the benefit game were made up of players from high schools and colleges in Maine and beyond, including Portland and Deering high schools, Scarborough High School, South Portland High School, Greely High School, Bates College, Briarcliffe College in Illinois, the University of Maine in Orono, Boston University and the University of Rhode Island.

Admission to Sunday’s game was free, but donations were accepted. Food and T-shirts were available for purchase.

Bill Flaherty, who helped handle media relations for the event, said the memorial lacrosse tournament raised $18,000. The funds will help to offset funeral expenses, with the remainder going toward some type of scholarship fund in Crawford’s name.

As of Sunday evening, a GoFundMe campaign had raised more than $27,000 to benefit Crawford’s family.

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