Kent Scott felt compelled to make a phone call to West Carroll High head football coach Josh Wolfe Tuesday afternoon.
Wolfe and the War Eagles football team had just lost one of their own when Blake Ray died in a car wreck after leaving practice that morning.
It was a feeling Scott knew all too well.
“Every time I hear of something like that happening, it just makes me sick to my stomach, and I can’t sleep at night,” Scott said. “I had a hard time sleeping Tuesday night thinking about that young man, his parents, his family, his team and the coaches … it’s a lot to handle — and too much to handle, really.”
Scott had been through a similar situation when he was the head coach at Trenton Peabody. He’s now an assistant coach at Crockett County.
He said that experience taught him that no words were going to make the situation the War Eagles are going through any better.
“There are no words that will help it,” Scott said. “And I told him that. I just told him he and the team and Blake’s family were in my thoughts and prayers, and if he needed me for any reason, he could call.”
On Aug. 22, 2008, the Golden Tide had started the season with a win, and the team was riding the high of the first victory. That changed in the early morning hours when Matt Morris, a senior on the team, was killed in a single-car crash just outside Trenton.
“I got the call a little after 4 that morning and got to the hospital about 6, and he’d been pronounced by that point,” Scott said. “We contacted everybody on the team and called a meeting at the fieldhouse for 8 that morning.”
Situations like that have happened to various athletic teams at different schools throughout West Tennessee in recent years.
“It happens too often,” said Dan Bland, who was the head coach at Humboldt High when Kane Young drowned on July 22, 2010. “The first time I was involved with anything like that was when a kid my son was friends with in high school died, and there were all these high school kids there mourning the loss of their friend.
“That’s not right. It’s not natural. If you want to think of it in football or school terms, it’s the coaches and teachers who should die first and not the kids.”
Bland had dealt with tragedy of this sort on a personal level when he was head coach at Farragut in the Knoxville area, as his own son, Michael, died in a wreck a couple of years after graduating high school. He said as much as losing his son affected him, he still wasn’t prepared for the loss of Kane.
“He was about to start his senior season, and he was a leader for that team, and would’ve been a good one,” Bland said. “And the kids were really affected because of what he meant to each of them and to the team as a whole — not as a running back or defensive lineman, but just as a human being everybody else enjoyed being around.
“That void was felt all season by the coaches and the players.”
Brian Lane was one of the assistant coaches on that Humboldt team. He had a special bond with Kane.
“He was like a son to me,” said Lane, who is now principal at Scotts Hill Elementary. “I think about him often — even now, five years later as we’re coming up on the anniversary of his death — and one thing that makes me smile about him is knowing he went to an FCA camp the year before he died and got saved there.
“After his death, I heard a lot of stories from other kids who were on that trip about how Kane had changed instantly because of that experience.”
Kane’s death happened on a Wednesday. The team practiced no more that week, and the coaches hadn’t planned on practicing that following Monday.
“We were all in Memphis all night for a prayer vigil,” Lane said about the night after Kane had been flown to The Med in Memphis. “We met with the kids who showed up that morning at the fieldhouse, and just basically cried and hugged and laughed.
“No football. We went through the next few days, through the weekend, just being at the fieldhouse for the kids. We made the decision to have everyone show up Monday night for regular practice time but had supper bought instead. After about an hour, the kids pushed us to go to the field. As I recall, it was unorganized; the kids tried to keep it light.”
Because Matt Morris’ death happened during the season, Scott admits he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the team schedule that week as they had to get ready for a road game at Camden the following Friday — until Morris’ father showed up at the team meeting the morning Matt died.
“He was there, and talked to the kids about how Matt wouldn’t want them to stop what they were doing for him,” Scott said. “He pushed them to keep working and have a good season in Matt’s memory.
“He came to practice every Thursday for the rest of the season and talked to the kids each week, and I think that was a good thing. It was almost a way for Matt to remain physically a part of the team even though he was gone. There were some emotional Thursday walk-throughs that year.”
Other deaths of young men have happened in connection with local football programs since then.
Jackson Central-Merry sophomore Bubba Sterling died in a house fire on Feb. 8, 2014, and that was less than a month after former Liberty player Markel Owens was shot in a robbery while he was home in Jackson before heading back to school at Arkansas State.
While Markel wasn’t a part of the Liberty football program at the time of his death, then-Liberty head coach Steve Hookfin — who is now the head coach at Haywood — said his death affected the coaches.
“We treat these players like they’re our own sons, and we think of them that way,” Hookfin said. “Markel was one of our own who was succeeding after Liberty, and he came home and was killed like that.
“We had a hard time getting past that, but it was something we had to do. The older kids who played behind him were affected, too, because Markel would come back and work out with them.”
JCM head coach Orentheus Taylor said Sterling’s death was the most impactful on a list of adversities the Cougar players and students have had to deal with.
“It’s obviously hard on the family and the parents to lose their child too soon like that,” Taylor said. “But most of those players are teenagers who haven’t had to deal with stuff like that, and it can have an effect.”
Bland said he’s found out from his own experiences it’s best to let the student-athletes deal with the loss and mourn it in their own way. At Humboldt, Lane made four signs with each having one letter that spelled “KANE” vertically, hung on the Vikings’ film tower on the end of the stadium. There’s also a space in the fieldhouse weight room dedicated to his memory, called “Kane’s Korner.”
“Kids are resilient — a lot more than most adults, from what I’ve seen,” Bland said. “They’ll get through this, and however they want to honor the memory of this young man at West Carroll, they need to let them do that if they can, and not try to force anything.
“The coaches need to be prepared to be there next week, or in two weeks, or two months, or whenever they really feel the loss of their friend and teammate. They need to be there for the players, and they need to be there for each other. Because this is a loss to them, too. I’m praying for them and the young man’s family — because that’s all that really can be done.”
Brandon Shields, 425-9751