Dale Caparaso has a pre-game ritual. It’s part of his game plan.
On Sept. 27, the longtime Tampa (Florida) area head coach threw that game plan out the window.
Before his Dixie Hollins Rebels kicked off against Northeast in a game between neighboring schools in St. Petersburg, Fla., Coach Caparaso did something he never does.
“I went up to each (Northeast) player to express my sympathy,” Caparaso said.
How do you mourn the loss of life, a young life, a young life taken way too soon on the football field? The Rebels and the Northeast Vikings did what came naturally – they played football.
That game against Dixie Hollins marked the first time Northeast set foot on a football field for a game since one of their seniors, Jacquez Welch, died. Welch went down during a routine play and never got back up.
Rushed to the hospital, the senior running back/middle linebacker had bleeding on the brain and was diagnosed with a condition that caused arteries in the brain to rupture. He was removed from life support and his mother donated his organs.
Number four, Welch’s jersey number, took a new meaning. The number four was everywhere. On t-shirts, posters, on a new tattoo Northeast coach Jeremy Frioud got to honor Welch’s final high school carry – a 60-yard touchdown run.
Unfortunately, this has been commonplace for Northeast. Welch’s death wasn’t the first time the Vikings have dealt with tragedy. Early on in Coach Frioud’s tenure at Northeast, one of his defensive lineman Leshawn Williams suffered a knee injury that resulted in an amputation.
And just three days before Welch’s incident on the field, former Vikings captain Marquis Scott was shot and killed while riding his bike.
In fact, Northeast was honoring Scott at the game where Welch went down. He helped celebrate the life of the fallen Viking by holding a framed photo of Scott during a pre-game ceremony.
There’s nothing in the playbook for what Coach Frioud’s been forced to navigate at Northeast. But he’s gotten through it and he’s helped his players get through it.
He started a buddy system for the players to check up on each other. And they weren’t the only ones.
The football community showed up in droves with support. From meals for the players to money raised for a scholarship in Welch’s name to the countless texts and emails, a collective hug was thrown around the Northeast Vikings.
“We’ve had so much outreach,” Frioud told Spectrum Bay News 9. “To all the people who have bought us food, all the people who have sent well wishes and prayers, to all the people who have sent me a text message I couldn’t respond to cause I got too many, it puts my heart at ease to know that these boys are going to make it in the real world because they have true character and true accountability.
“They haven’t missed one workout; they haven’t felt sorry for themselves. Yes, they’ve grieved. We’ve all grieved together. At the same time, they’ve been able to stand up and stand strong.”
Football is a tough game for tough people, but the grieving process is a real and necessary process and Coach Frioud let his players know it’s OK to cry. He showed them it’s OK by crying often.
“Jeremy was in a different place after the death,” Caparaso said. “He handled it very professionally and with great compassion.”
Honoring Welch became an integral part of the healing process.
Football is a fraternity and one of their own was gone forever. And the ones left behind were suffering. So before the start of the game between Dixie Hollins and Northeast, players and coaches gathered at midfield, linked arms and bowed their heads in a moment of silence for Welch.
“The game was secondary that night,” Caparaso said. “Once the whistle blew, both teams played their hearts out.”
And it wasn’t just the Northeast players who were learning some tough life lessons.
“It was a great, eye-opening experience for all of us,” Caparaso said. “Two communities, two schools, two teams and two coaching staffs coming together as one to honor the memory of a young man.”
Every week since Dixie Hollins played Northeast, when the Rebels tried to help in the healing process, Coach Caparaso has touched base with Frioud.
It’s that coaching fraternity.
“Relationships and family transcend football,” Caparaso said. “He does what he does for the right reasons, as I like to believe i do the same.
“I love that man and now love those players and their families.”
Tampa Bay Tragedies
Welch’s death capped off a tumultuous time off the field in the Tampa Bay area.
In June, Seminole High School, less than 30 minutes from Tampa, was rocked by the death of the team’s only female player, Sophia Delott, who was struck on her bicycle by a suspected drunk driver.
Just before the start of the season, tragedy struck Middleton High School in Tampa when incoming freshman Hezekiah Walters died during a conditioning workout. His funeral was held on the same day as Eric Patterson’s.
Patterson was a former standout at Plant High School in Tampa and Ball State University. He was shot and killed during a home invasion in Tampa.
“Football is truly a family unlike any other,” Plant head coach Robert Weiner said. “The bond created in the shared efforts between players and coaches is unparalleled.
“And that is the reason that in times of difficulty and challenge that football is an inspired collective community.”
Coach Weiner found himself coaching up players who hadn’t worn a Plant uniform in nearly a decade. He learned a lesson every coach comes to know; you never stop coaching your players.
“Winning football games is the easy part of our job,” Caparaso said. “This is about helping young men become men and productive members of society. Helping young men grow and do the right things is why we do what we do.”