On Oct. 23 Kyle Wilson, the starting halfback for Central Catholic (Pittsburgh), attended a game between McKeesport (Pa.) and Gateway (Monroeville, Pa.). While watching, the 5-foot-7, 160-pound Wilson collapsed without warning. He was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. Later that night he was released.
The next morning he did not feel well and complained to his parents, who took him to Pittsburgh Children's Hospital. Suffering from an apparent stroke, doctors rushed him into surgery. He regained consciousness briefly on Monday, Oct. 27, but died early Tuesday morning.
The next day Central Catholic's football team was faced with a difficult choice. It could abandon its season and mourn Wilson privately, as individuals. Or it could continue on, using football as a mechanism to cope with tragedy, risking the emotional devastation that would come with a loss when playing for a fallen teammate. After consultation with Wilson's family, the team chose to play.
Central, an all-boys school located in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood, is the defending Pennsylvania state champion. The team had gone undefeated in 2007 and won the state championship in '04. The school has a long, proud football history, counting future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino and all-pro quarterback Marc Bulger as alumni.
The school inspires fierce loyalty among its graduates. Nearly every one of Central's football coaches attended the school. They understand the rigors of Central's strict Christian Brothers education, as well the kinship that the Central experience creates among students. Central graduates are considered part of a family. Words of condolence reached Wilson's family from alumni across the country.
Central was scheduled to play Penn Trafford High on Friday, Oct. 31, in the first round of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League playoffs.
That night Derrick Wilson, Kyle's father, addressed the team behind closed doors. Two of Kyle's closest friends on the team led Central onto the field with Kyle's jersey held high. The team wore stickers with Kyle's initials and jersey number 23 of their helmets. Central students and fans wore T-shirts in Kyle's honor.
Central was quick to capitalize on the emotion of the night, jumping on Penn Trafford early en route to a 42-0 rout. Players described that night as a celebration of Wilson's life, a victory of brotherhood over tragedy. The team took a risk by playing -- a loss, just days after Kyle's death, would have been devastating for the young Vikings.
The following day the Vikings began preparations for their next opponent, the favored McKeesport Tigers. But first the team had to bury Wilson. On Monday, Nov. 3, a funeral mass was held at Wilson's family church in suburban Pittsburgh. More than 1,500 people attended, so many that the church was forced to simulcast services to a nearby building. He was remembered as a young man with a magnetic wit and a deep love for football.
"He's everything I would want him to be and more," Derrick Wilson eulogized.
Two days later Central Catholic held its own memorial service. Students mourned, but with the stiff-upper-lip discipline instilled by the school's Christian Brothers.
"The down time is the time for them to grieve, but as soon as we step between the lines, they find a place where they can be a unit again," offensive coordinator Dave Fleming said.
Coaches privately acknowledged to SI.com that it would take Central's best effort to beat McKeesport. They hoped Central's offense would establish the pass early to keep McKeesport's physical defense honest. Central's defense was charged with stopping the Tigers' exotic running attack.
The Vikings' locker room was quiet prior to the Nov. 7 game. Defensive lineman Stephen Mitchell said the team was confident and focused.
"Our heads were out there for a little bit last week," added senior linebacker Sam Loughrey. "But our focus is back now."
Moments before kickoff Central coach Terry Totten told his team to set a physical tone.
"Let them know, 'I'm not going nowhere, I'm representing something you don't know about and I ain't going nowhere,'" he said.
Totten then invited Derrick Wilson to address the team.
"I want you guys to throw the first punch, throw punches and punches and don't stop," Wilson said. "You will end up with a 'W', and Kyle will be looking down."
"In a couple of minutes we're gong to do something that everyone said was impossible," Totten said.
His final words: "Bring it from somewhere they don't know exists."
With that statement, the locker room erupted and the team stormed the field on an unseasonably warm November night. But hopes of another dramatic victory quickly faded. McKeesport controlled the game early, dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and not allowing the Central offense to get into a rhythm. By the end of the first half the Tigers led 14-0. At the final whistle, the Tigers had run up 408 yards compared to Central's 112.
The final score: McKeesport 28, Central Catholic 6.
After the game, Totten gathered his team and thanked them for their efforts all year. He told the seniors that he would meet with them to discuss their college futures. He told the underclassmen that he looked forward to seeing them next year. Some players held back tears. Others cried openly. The emotional wave that sustained them through the death of a teammate, through a resounding playoff victory, through a funeral and a memorial service for a friend, had crashed. Tomorrow they would face a world without football. Tomorrow they would face a world without Kyle Wilson.
Totten dismissed the team and embraced Derrick Wilson. He thanked him and his family for their support.
"I will tell the story of this team, of your son, for as long as I coach," Totten said. He fought back tears.
"Thank you Coach," Wilson said. The two then went their separate ways.