LINDEN – It was a beautiful first Saturday of fall, perfect for a football game. Blue skies, not too hot, not too cold – perfect.
Then you noticed the American flag flying at half-mast next to the country house and a makeshift memorial the first few steps from the entrance against a fence.
Roses, candles, photos of a smiling teenager, balloons hanging in the wind, including one with the words “We miss you”. A blue No. 16 stood at the base, buried in the grass. Passers-by stopped to take it in quietly, lowering their heads.
Linden sophomore Xavier McClain died Wednesday night from a head injury he sustained in a Sept. 9 game. He wore number 16 and was 16 years old.
How could such a thing happen?
“There are just no words,” Linden head coach Al Chiola said after his side’s 13-0 victory over Perth Amboy. “There are no words to say to the team, to anyone. There are no words. I have no words. I come home, I see my children, I kiss them a little longer. I hug these guys a little longer. I hug our coaches longer.
“It’s tough and we talked all week about trying to fight back and play the game well. The right way. Playing hard like Xavier would have wanted and that’s what we tried to do. It’s the only way to honor him right now.
outpouring of condolences
It’s like everyone needs a group hug. The McClains, mom Lisa and dad Norman, and the Linden Tigers received condolences and best wishes from rival teams to affected parents everywhere at New York Jets coach Robert Saleh.
“The outpouring of support has been great for our program and these kids because they need it,” Chiola said.
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead and his wife Danie are friends with the McClains, and their children have played youth sports with Xavier.
“The Linden community, the football community – we rally behind the family because of these events,” Armstead said during the first quarter of Saturday’s game. “It’s just what we do when things like that happen. You know, I have to say that sometimes when things are at their worst, we as human beings can be at our best. And that’s how it should be. … It’s just been a total outpouring and show of love and support for the family.
It’s always difficult to understand tragedy and then balance it with the normalcy of everyday life. Saturday had a strange dichotomy. After a moment of moderate silence, the game and fanfare continued like any other game.
Spectators filled the stands. The cheerleaders chanted. The soft ice cream truck across the street had a long line at half time.
Players have always enjoyed making big tackles. There was even a nerve-wracking injury time-out, in which a Perth Amboy player lay on his back for several moments before getting back up. Chiola walked over and watched, gently placing her hand on one shoulder, letting him know, in essence, that all of Linden was there for him.
Chiola is an almost inveterate soccer player and his sons play at Colonia High School, so he is aware of the risks and rewards. With injuries, Chiola said, you just hope the player recovers. Still, make someone die?
“You never think something like this is going to happen”
It’s rare. In 2021, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research reported that there were “four traumatic (direct) injury deaths occurring among football players during football-related activities” in its annual research survey. on football injuries. Additionally, all four were into high school football and had traumatic brain injuries.
“We have kids at home who play football and we all know it’s a violent sport, but you never think something like this is going to happen,” Chiola said. “You just don’t. It’s awful.”
He added: “You just feel, it’s different. Everything is a little different now.
One is too many.
“It changes you a bit,” Chiola said. “You look at every play, every shot a little different now. One thing I can say about Xavier, we talked about it in the locker room before the game, when he was on the football field it’s the happiest to see him. He is always smiling and he loved football. He did.”
Again, how do you balance playing a game you love with the tragedy that comes with it?
“It’s like unimaginable that you could lose a young man here on your hometown football pitch,” Armstead said, “and quite honestly, as much as I love football, I will never watch the game of the same way after losing one of ours here.
“I think every time I turn on the TV and see a team play, I’ll probably think of this young man. Probably for the rest of my life.
Armstead added: “There’s a reason there are a number of kids here who are affected by this because Xavier was friends with a lot of kids. It hurts. It probably hurts them as much as some parents. It’s a difficult thing. It really is.”
Life and games have to go on, though, and Chiola said getting back to the football routine was important for grieving linebackers and linemen.
“Obviously all week they had bereavement counselors for the students, for the players, for the teachers,” he said, “but sometimes you just have to go back to your routine a bit, just for an hour or so – obviously don’t forget that – but just play football for that hour and then go home and spend time with their family and heal emotionally.
He noted that the team wanted to play Perth Amboy and that the coaches had been in discussions with the administrators if the game was to go ahead. The concern was whether the players would be mentally ready for football.
The game was pushed back from Friday to Saturday for an extra day to help focus. The school administration asked journalists not to speak with the players. Chiola was kind enough to talk about what the team has been through over the past few days.
“It was extremely difficult,” he said, wearing a visor with a No. 16 decal. “We took the day off to heal together as a team and we just sat together and did had a great team dinner. And it was important. I think that helped. We tried to bring some of that structure and normalcy back to our children. We kept saying get ready for football, let’s focus on the game, let’s focus on your technique, your work. Did better than expected.
Linden scored twice in the first half with touchdown passes from Alex Donic and Tequan Thomas. Perth Amboy rallied in the second half, but Obinma Rogers intercepted a goal-line pass to save the shutout.
Tribute to Xavier
When it was over, senior Tyell Williams wore a white No.16 jersey and walked over to Thomas, and they brought him along the handshake line with the Perth Amboy players.
Chiola, her voice cracking, told the team in a semicircle that the coaches are proud of them and the best way to honor Xavier is to play hard and play the right way.
And in the end, there were hugs between the players and the family members.
“It’s really tough,” Danie Orelien-Armstead, the mayor’s wife, said tearfully earlier in the day. “It really is. It’s unfortunate that it took these tragedies for us to come together and when I heard the news of his passing, the first thing I did was call all my children and I kissed them I held them tight and I said I love you.
“I hugged them really tight and said I love you. I love you because you weren’t promised tomorrow, you know. I’m lucky they’re still there and someone else is going to bury their child. It’s not fair. It’s just like not right. It hurts. It really is.
It’s a good reminder not to take normality and those blue skies for granted.
“Life is unpredictable,” Danie said. “You never know, that’s why I tell all the parents to come home every night, kiss your children. Say I love you. Put everything aside, whatever it is because you don’t know ever. I tell them every day that I love them.