September 12, 2011

LINWOOD, N.J. -- Tradition is big for Mainland Regional High School's football team, which took to the field Friday night for the first time since a car wreck claimed the lives of four young players on the team.

It was a team tradition that the four boys were headed to participate in when they lost their lives. Each preseason, a caravan of players from Mainland's football team drives to Old Country Buffet, an all-you-can-eat restaurant in nearby Mays Landing, for a feast after the last practice of the summer. But one car in the caravan never made it to the restaurant this year. Four Mainland players -- Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield; Edgar Bozzi, 17, of Somers Point; Dean Khoury, 15, of Linwood and Nicholas Conner, 16, of Northfield -- died Aug. 20 when the SUV they were in overturned near the Garden State Parkway.

Four other players injured in the crash included two Linwood residents, 17-year-old Jacob Smith and 15-year-old Kenneth Randall, and two 16-year-old Northfield residents, Kyle Beattie and Alex Denafo, all of whom were released from the hospital soon after the accident. All but Randall dressed for Friday night's game.

Under Coach Bob Coffey, who is in his 26th year as head coach, Mainland has won five state championships and in 2008 was the second-ranked team in New Jersey behind national power Don Bosco Prep. The Mustangs' winning tradition did not endure Friday night -- their matchup against Cape Atlantic League rival Hammonton High ended in a 23-7 loss, but Mainland added a few new traditions to its repertoire along the way.

Players wore black socks in memory of their missing teammates and pasted stickers on the back of their helmets -- each listing the four numbers -- 20, 34, 47 and 67 -- of the deceased players. Their rival schools in the league have all pledged to honor Mainland this season by wearing stickers with the Mustangs' horseshoe logo on their helmets.

Though their absence pervaded the game-day atmosphere, the four boys were everywhere Friday night. The cheerleaders decorated the football lockers of the two seniors, Casey and Edgar, as they normally would have before a home game. And the official game roster passed out at the entrance gates listed the four boys' names, jersey numbers, positions, heights and weights along with their living teammates'.

Indeed, Nick Conner's mom, Cristina Barella-Meoli, said she caught herself scanning the players for her son. Nick Connor had graduated from JV to a spot on the special teams squad this year.

"I keep feeling like I want to look for him -- see him jumping up and down on the sidelines one more time," she said.

Coffey, 56, had pledged to his players that he wouldn't cross their teammates' names off his list. "I can't take them off the roster; I don't have the heart to do it," Coffey said. Brenner was competing to be the starting tight end, Bozzi was likely to get playing time as a linebacker and Khoury was working hard after Coffey nearly kicked him off the team for missing a practice. But at a practice this past week, Coffey slipped up and automatically called out Edgar Bozzi's name when he got to it on his roster. Silence. And then a handful of players all piped up, "Here."

From that, another new tradition was born, and now every time roll is called before a practice, Casey, Dean, Edger and Nick's names are called out and the players respond in the affirmative, all together as a team.

It felt like a typical Friday night game in many ways, but there were stark reminders that though this game heralded the start of a return to normalcy, the evening was anything but normal.

Before the game, a tailgate was held and students, parents and teachers filled a field behind the home side of the field, known as the Mustang Corral, eating soft pretzels and pizza, many of them wearing commemorative T-shirts sold to defray the families' funeral costs. The shirts, which included the names of the four boys and the words "Never Forget," were sold out before the game started.

And there in the bleachers, where the mothers of players sit together in a pack during home games wearing their son's white away-jerseys, were a few parents in home green jerseys -- the ones their sons should have been wearing on the field that evening.

Before the coin flip, a brigade of Scottish bagpipes and drums played America the Beautiful, a mural depicting four wild mustangs each bearing one of the boys' names was unveiled under the press box in the grandstand and a series of school officials, including superintendent Tom Buffani, took the microphone to address the crowd.

"I know some of you didn't know these boys but because they were from this community, you wanted to do something -- anything," Baruffi said. He took a deep breath before intoning the boys' names. "Nick, Dean, Connor, Edgar; they were so special -- yet so familiar. They were innocent young men who knew how to play, how to work and how to love life."

Dean Khoury's father, Ted, was there wearing his son's home jersey. He has shown up at the team's football practices every morning, incorporating into his morning workout a jog around the track during every practice, where he can feel closer to his son and also check in on his son's teammates, many of whom he coached as small children.

"Sometimes I pull one of them over to the side and look in their eyes -- I can tell when they're having a bad day," Khoury said.

Just as the boys were looking forward to getting back into the swing of things last night, Khoury said it was important to him to be at the first game. He and the rest of the parents who lost their sons have pledged to be there at every game for the rest of the season.

"I would have been here no matter what, so I was not going to not be here," said Barella-Meoli.

And of all the events surrounding Khoury's son's death -- a vigil, four funerals, a paddle out at the beach where everyone surfed back in, and even a moment of silence for the team observed at a Phillies home game, "this is what we've been looking forward to," Khoury said.

From the start, the game was tinged with pent-up emotion. Casey Brenner's younger brother Ryan, a sophomore linesman, took to the field with chants of "Ry-an Bren-ner" coming from the stands.

Mainland's sole score came on a 38-yard run by senior Chris Kaczmarski, one of the game captains. As the running back sprinted into the end zone to cut Hammonton's lead to 10-7 with 1:35 left in the first half, the Mainland bleachers and sidelines erupted. Kaczmarski pointed to the sky after he crossed the goal line and someone set off fireworks behind the home bleachers.

Michael Anderson, a senior ofensive linesman, created the block in a trap play that sprang Kaczmarski open for the touchdown. "It was a great feeling, because it was back to normal: moving the ball, scoring touchdowns," Anderson said. "That's the greatest feeling in the world."

Michael Bozzi, a former Mainland football player and Edgar's older brother, paced the sidelines the entire game while wearing his brother's green jersey. With players celebrating alongside him, he ran down the sideline to greet Kaczmarski as he came off the field. "That felt awesome," Bozzi said, grinning.

The Mustangs were outpaced by Hammonton in the second half, giving up two more touchdowns. The loss was disappointing, but just showing up after what the team had endured over the past two weeks -- was a victory in itself, Coffey said.

"They hit us with a couple of plays," Coffey said. "As soon as we get in better shape, we'll play a full 48 minutes. We'll be fine. After what we've been through -- we don't practice and we don't prepare to lose -- but the important things in life are this community and love here," he said, motioning across the field and toward the grandstands. "No game can bring us any more sorrow than we've had."

Despite the loss, it felt good just to be back on a football field, Anderson said. "It just let out everything that's been built up since the accident, basically all the emotions and channeled it toward something positive. We just want to turn this negative into a positive."

After the buildup behind Friday's game, what's next for the Mustangs? "We get ready for St. Augustine," Coffey said. Bright and early the next morning at 9:15, assembled in the school's weight room, that's what they did. And when roll call came, every player's name was called and every player -- even Connor, Dean, Edgar and Nick -- was there.

With all the new traditions, some old ones were kept in place, but with a twist. While some sports teams wear button down shirts and ties to school before a home game, at Mainland, every football player wears a custom made T-shirt bearing a different slogan each week. Past year's shirts have included statements of bravado like, "Justice at High Noon" and "Get Paid." For this game, the players received shirts with a more reflective statement, "Now lift your eyes up to the sky," the first line of the chant they yell while walking hand in hand into the end zone before taking the field at every game.

The whole chant, to the tune of the Marine Corps' "Sound Off" cadence, goes like this: "Now lift your eyes up to the sky/That Mainland team is passing by/Now if you heard what I just said/Drop to your knees and bow your head."

"Basically it means whenever we're down and we don't think we have anything left, you just lift your eyes up to the sky and know we have four brothers up there looking down on us," Anderson said.

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