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Iraq death casts pall on WNY village

The news came late on Christmas Day, and, as it spread through the Village of Cattaraugus, holiday celebrations came to an abrupt halt.

Jason Denfrund, who was known for his football exploits at Cattaraugus High School and became a sergeant in the Army, had been killed in Iraq earlier in the day when a roadside bomb exploded while he was on patrol in Baghdad.

He was 24 years old, with a wife, a stepdaughter and an infant son.

"Every single person, their first reaction was . . . nobody believed it," said Daniel Parisi, one of a tight-knit circle of buddies that included Denfrund. "It was the most devastating thing that happened to any of us."

Friends and family members remembered a big kid with a permanent smile who became the best player on his high school football team, then found his calling in the Army.

His stepfather, Randy Wienk, helped raise Denfrund from age 4.

"He was always outspoken, always had a comment," Wienk said. "He was a very nice kid."

Denfrund grew up in this Cattaraugus County community with a group of friends who included Parisi and Parisi's brother, Russell.

Russell Parisi, who, along with Denfrund, was a member of the last graduating class at Cattaraugus High before it merged with Little Valley in 2000, remembered first meeting his friend in third grade.

"I remember sitting at the same table at school, No. 8, the best table in the school," said Russell Parisi. "Jason was always our big guy, sticking up for us."

The Parisi brothers remember playing sports, in particular football, with Denfrund while they were growing up. The three were members of a group of about eight who stuck together from boyhood to adolescence.

"Growing up, me and him were the exact same," said Daniel Parisi, who was a class ahead of Denfrund. "Both of us were very hard-headed, stubborn and pretty much always looking for excitement."

Like many high school kids, that search for fun sometimes got them into trouble, but Russell Parisi said it was nothing serious. "We were just high school kids, being mischievous," he said.

In high school, Denfrund's size and aggressiveness earned him a promotion to the varsity as a sophomore, which was unusual, said his coach, Tim Miller.

"Jason was one of those kids who would constantly bother us as a staff because he was always asking if somebody could let him into the weight room," Miller said. "He worked hard at lifting weights."

Denfrund played offensive and defensive lineman and, by his senior year, Miller said, he was the best player on the team, a captain and a leader.

"He kind of held that front line together," Miller remembered. "He would have been our go-to guy. That would would have been the direction we ran if we needed a yard."

Denfrund, 6 feet tall and 240 pounds, was named to the first-team offense of The Buffalo News' Division VIII football honor roll his senior year, and he enrolled at Brockport State College, intending to continue his football career.

He spent only a year at Brockport before transferring to Jamestown Community College, but he only stayed there a semester, according to Daniel Parisi. He enlisted in the Army in June 2001.

"I think one day he just came home and said that in a few weeks, he was leaving [for the Army]," Daniel Parisi said. "No one knew he enlisted. He never really talked about it, really. He just did it. He was looking forward to it."

Wienk said the Army "turned him into a man, and a good one."

After tours in Germany and Kosovo, Denfrund went to Iraq, then returned for a second tour. About a year and a half ago, he married Melissa and became a stepfather of her daughter, Chloe. Earlier this year, he became a father with the birth of his son, Jayden.

Around the time he got married, he also re-enlisted in the Army, his stepfather said.

"I think a lot of it was when he got married, he wanted to take care of his family, and that was the way to do it," Wienk said.

The Parisi brothers said the last year or so, they didn't hear as much from Denfrund, which they attributed to the focus he was putting on being a soldier, husband and father.

Both brothers said they wished they had told Denfrund more often how proud they were of him and how much he meant to them.

"I wish I would have expressed more appreciation toward Jason," Russell Parisi said. "I don't know if he actually felt appreciation from his best friends, that he was fighting for us."

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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