Cory Monteith, who played high school quarterback turned singer Finn Hudson on Glee, died on July 13, way too young, at 31, from a lethal combination of heroin and alcohol. As Monteith played him, Finn was often the heart and emotional anchor of a show that could take roller-coaster shifts in tone. But at its best, Glee has been rooted in something real: the struggles of small-town kids to become better than they’ve been led to expect and their fear that their reality may not match their dreams.
Finn embodied that predicament. The only thing he worried about more than his teammates’ ridicule for joining glee club was the potential of ending up a “Lima loser” who peaked in high school. That’s part of what made the climactic duet of the pilot episode, “Don’t Stop Believin’”–which Monteith performed with Lea Michele, whom he would eventually date in real life–such a fitting emotional anthem. Both Glee and Monteith, who once spoke of an “out of control” adolescence and did a second stint in rehab this year, sold not only the optimism of that song but also the hint that merely believin’ would not always be enough.
This text originally appeared in the July 29 issue of TIME magazine.