It was a question with no right answer that tugged heavy at the hearts of Damon Janes’ teammates when the 16-year-old died after a hit in a high school football game: Should the season go on?
Should the players rally and play every game for their star running back, whose motto was “Giving up is simply not an option?” Or should the teenagers forget about football and take time to mourn their friend?
The Westfield-Brocton Wolverines’ varsity players took a paper-ballot vote and decided that the pain was too great, that their season would end after two games.
“I wanted to play, I love the game,” said teammate Stevie Wisecarver III, a 16-year-old quarterback who has played football since third grade. “But it just wouldn’t feel right without him. The team just didn’t feel right.”
Added 17-year-old senior cornerback Joey Villafrank: “It feels like there’s more to life. Before, football used to be life for me; it was the only sport I played. But now I realize that there’s more than just playing the game.”
It’s a grief that’s spread through the close-knit villages of Brocton and Westfield, tucked amid grape farms about an hour’s drive south of Buffalo, where the once-rival high schools were forced to combine their teams three seasons ago because of budget cuts.
Townspeople have held vigils, lighted candles and released balloons. They’ve stayed up nights making ribbons and cookies as fundraisers for the Janes family. The Green Arch Restaurant is contributing apple pies. Hair salons are dyeing streaks of blue and green, reflecting Westfield’s school colors of blue and white and Brocton’s of green. Memorial T-shirts with Damon’s motto are being printed. And a spaghetti dinner benefit at the Nickel Plate Depot planned for Sunday is expected to draw hundreds.
“It’s just a tragic thing that happened,” 71-year-old Harold Montague said as he finished his coffee at the Green Arch, recalling a procession for Damon’s funeral that stretched for more than a mile and a half. “A lot’s been done that I’ve never seen before.”
Damon took what hospital officials would later describe as a “helmet-to-helmet” hit during the third quarter of Westfield-Brocton’s Sept. 13 game against Portville, a 32-6 loss. He was able to get on his feet but lost consciousness on the sidelines. He died three days later at Women & Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. An exact cause of death has not been released.
In his obituary, his family wrote that Damon liked fishing, hunting and just about every kind of sport — soccer, basketball, ice skating, motocross and snowboarding. “He put 110 percent into everything he did,” it said. “His motto was, ‘Giving up is simply not an option.'”
For some parents, the dangers were obvious even before Damon’s death. As their sadness began to mix with anger, they complained that poor officiating, with no penalty calls on late hits, made it only a matter of time before ball carriers like Damon got hurt.
“That whole game was plagued with late hits and people using their helmets to spear other people,” said Sam Villafrank, Joey’s father. “It was like anything goes.”
School officials did not return calls seeking comment on the accusation.
Concern about increasingly hard hits among the one million boys who play high school football has brought renewed attention to concussion management and a national initiative to teach the “Heads Up” tackling technique. An average of 12 high school and college players die annually, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Damon’s was at least the fifth high school football death this season, but his was the only team to cancel the season because of it.
As iridescent ribbons sparkle from light poles in Brocton, the players say they are moving on without football after making a decision that’s drawn both support and criticism — from those who believe Damon would have wanted the season to go on.
“Honestly, none of us can really say what Damon would have wanted,” Villafrank said. “The only person who could have said that was Damon. And unfortunately, he’s not here anymore.”