A year after tragedy, Vandebilt Catholic still honors lost students
Players gathered at the site -- a broken guardrail off the shoulder of Louisiana Highway 182 -- and mourned en masse. They gazed into the murky water, anguished, confused and disbelieving. Two days earlier, Vandebilt Catholic High (La.) senior quarterback T.J. Cantrelle completed 7-of-12 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown to lead the Terriers to a 34-12 victory over South Lafourche (La.). The football season looked bright. Now, Cantrelle's teammates stood on the bank of the St. Louis Canal attempting to make sense of a harrowing tragedy that left a team, high school and community searching for answers.
"I think we just wanted to see where the accident happened to figure out if it was actually real," said Vandebilt wideout Eric Chauvin. "For a lot of us, it was like we wanted to wake up from a bad dream."
In the early hours of Sept. 26, 2010, Cantrelle, 17, and starting safety Ian Haydel, 15, were driving from the LSU-West Virginia football game in Baton Rouge to their homes in Houma, La. Classmates Gabrielle Hebert and Megan Hitt, both 17, were with them. Twelve hours later, police found Cantrelle's 2008 Ford King Ranch submerged upside down in a man-made stream adjacent to the highway. The bodies of all four teens were trapped inside.
Authorities believe Cantrelle fell asleep at the wheel and drifted off the road. An autopsy detected no traces of drugs or alcohol.
Cantrelle didn't need to be told that he was a great football player. He preferred to tell you himself. At 5-foot-8 and an embellished 140 pounds, he led the Terriers with an audacious swagger that belied his size. He had an innate ability to read defenses and could burn opponents with both his arm and legs. Through four games, he passed for 321 yards, rushed for 150 yards and collected four total touchdowns (two passing, two rushing).
"Some kids would say T.J. was arrogant, but he could always back up the talk," coach Laury DuPont said. "He had a lot of speed and was hard to find in the backfield because he was so small."
Cantrelle was also a starter on the basketball and baseball teams. He carried a 4.0 GPA and was on pace to become valedictorian. He had plans to continue his athletic career at Millsaps or Louisiana College. Perhaps most memorably, he had a knack for inspiring fellow classmates and players with his blue-collar brand of grittiness.
"I'm 6-2 and around 270 pounds, which is a lot bigger than T.J.," said defensive lineman David Breerwood. "But it was always really hard to bring him down during practice. He had so much fight in him. T.J. could put his mind to anything and get it done."
Haydel was equally motivated. At 5-11 and 175, he possessed the speed and agility to blanket a field. He recorded 43 tackles his sophomore year, returning a fumble 98 yards for a score in Vandebilt's 41-16 win over Assumption (La.) on Sept. 17, 2010. He was ranked on numerous BCS recruiting boards, tantalizing scouts as he grew bigger, stronger and faster.
But they weren't the only ones who took notice. "The girls would say Ian was the hunk of his class," DuPont said. "He carried himself with a lot of confidence. A lot of older girls liked him, and Ian knew it."
Hebert was a senior cheerleader, described by friends as the "the life of the party," and Hitt was president of Vandebilt's campus ministry and one of the football team's biggest supporters. Both were well-recognized and well-liked across campus. They were outgoing, demonstrative, always smiling.
All four had unique personalities. All four shared an affinity for football. All four had limitless futures, seemingly destined for great things.
Cantrelle exemplified that during the Terriers' 2010 season-opener. Doctors told him that he would miss up to four weeks with a second-degree ankle sprain. They told him that he'd be ineligible for the Sept. 3 matchup with E.D. White (La.). After persuading medical personnel that he was up for the task -- despite a pulsing pain that shot through his leg -- they told him that he was a longshot to see playing time. That is, until backup quarterback Elijah McGuire went down with a knee injury midway through the fourth quarter.
That's when things got interesting. DuPont was without options, inserting a hobbled Cantrelle under center. Trailing 24-14 with less than four minutes to go, he orchestrated two late touchdown drives, the latter punctuated by a 18-yard fade to Jeffrey Ross in the corner of the end zone as time expired. He rallied the Terriers to an improbable 27-24 triumph, capping one of the most thrilling moments of his tragically shortened life.
A swarm of euphoric Vandebilt fans mobbed him as he limped off the field. He fought back tears in the locker room as he addressed his teammates.
"T.J. told us he prayed all week that he would be able to somehow get onto that field and make a play to help Vandebilt win," DuPont said. "It's something I will remember for the rest of my life."
That was the text message Jimmy Cantrelle, T.J.'s father, received at 12:57 a.m. He drifted to sleep, assured of his son's safety. But three hours later, when he woke to check his phone, he saw only his son's original text.
Something was wrong.
A call went directly to voice mail, and Jimmy drove to his apartment in Houma, where T.J. and Ian planned to spend the night. Jimmy prepared to give his son an earful for forgetting to check in. But there was no forgetting. When he opened the garage door, he didn't see T.J.'s pickup truck. His worst fears were realized.
Parents immediately began searching for T.J., Ian, Gabby and Megan. State and local police were called in for assistance. "The kids' cell phones would ring, and then they'd turn off," DuPont said. "A lot of people thought the same thing, that maybe the truck was underwater somewhere."
That was confirmed when a GPS signal from one of the teens' phones tracked the pickup at 1:45 p.m., nearly 10 hours after the accident. Word of the tragedy spread quickly. Classmates communicated their distress over Facebook. Chauvin and his family called a prayer service and invited everyone to attend.
"I was in complete shock," said cheerleader Adrienne Champagne. "I had every class with Megan and Gabby. I couldn't believe that something like this could happen to my two best friends."
Vandebilt held a morning mass the following Monday, suspending classes to provide students with time to cope. The team's Oct. 1 game against Hahnville was canceled. Four funerals were packed into three days, as school and sports took a back seat to family and faith.
"I'm 63 and I've never been to so many funerals in a week," said Vandebilt president David Keife. "Young people should not have to deal with something like this. Hopefully [it] teaches them how precious life really is."
Schools across the state expressed condolences with sympathy cards and floral arrangements. The message was clear: People across Louisiana were praying for Vandebilt.
The New Orleans Saints were among the concerned. Less than two weeks after the accident, Saints coach Sean Payton invited Vandebilt to the Saints' practice facility in Metairie, La. After watching drills, the Terriers met Drew Brees, Reggie Bush and several other NFL players. Then they traveled to Belle Chasse (La.) for their first game after the tragedy.
Drawing inspiration from the visit, the Terriers gutted out an emotional 24-13 victory. It was recorded as another conference win in the record books, but was far more significant for the Vandebilt community: It symbolized the beginning of a new chapter.
"The best thing to do is to move on and resume our activities," Keife said. "As painful as it may be, we are honoring (the deceased students) by doing this."
Their momentum carried through the rest of the season. The Terriers went 8-2, even stringing together a five-game winning streak before falling to Bastrop (La.) 48-28 in the second round of the state playoffs. It was the program's first winning season since 2007, a tribute to the players and fans lost far too young.
"The accident was one of the hardest things we've ever had to deal with, but we'll never forget who [T.J., Ian, Gabby and Megan] were or what they did for us while they were here," Chauvin said. "We're going to keep them in our hearts, our prayers and our minds. Death is not the end. We know they're still with us."
Football is to Houma what gumbo is to New Orleans. It's interwoven into the fabric of the local culture. In the wake of tragedy, it also nurtures the soul. An accident devastated Vandebilt, but also illuminated the spiritual power that stems from a small community watching its children play heroically on the football field.
In 2011, 70 athletes arrived to Terriers' preseason training camp. They completed the same drills, prepared for the team's Sept. 2 opener with E.D. White. Though the word "normal" will never have the same meaning for the program, DuPont recognizes the importance of reestablishing routine. It's the adage: Life goes on.
Cantrelle, Hebert and Hitt would have graduated last year, but Haydel would have entered the season as a junior. He's still considered a member of the team. His locker will be maintained for the next two seasons, and his name, position and jersey number remain on the Terriers' roster. "You need to live each day to the fullest -- that's the lesson," DuPont said. "You never know what the future might hold."
Miles away, on Louisiana Highway 182, cars and tractors speed past a white cross that was once flanked with bouquets of flowers. It's planted on the brim of a desolate stretch of pavement near a waterway, marking the spot where the four students died. It is kept there in their honor.
More fittingly, their memory is preserved beneath the bright lights at Vandebilt Catholic. A year after the accident, the mourning period is over. But people pledge to remember how they lived.
"For T.J., Ian, Gabby and Megan, the accident site would be the last place their spirits would want to be," said Vandebilt Chaplain Jerry Daniels. "They'd want to be where they loved and enjoyed doing things, and the football field is one of those places."