Chances are that each of the 112 high school football teams still in contention to win a state title have, at one time or another, been forced to overcome some form of hardship this season.
However, that often-used coaching expression — the need to “overcome adversity” — has taken on a new meaning for three area high schools that have had seasons riddled with tragedy.
For Nashville Christian, Siegel and McGavock, the win-or-go-home stakes of November football aren’t all that daunting.
“Our kids know about perspective in life, and I think they’ve gained a lot of respect for what life is really about,” said Siegel coach Greg Wyant, who referred to the Stars’ heartache-filled 2015 season as “surreal.”
“With all the things that have happened to our program and those two young men — one that we lost and another that’s still in the hospital — I’d say that’s a pretty good term for it.”
On Sept. 2, Siegel sophomore football player and wrestler Mason Loupe died from a gunshot wound he had suffered five days earlier.
A little more than seven weeks later, the Stars were rocked by another devastating blow as junior defensive back Baylor Bramble was hospitalized after sustaining a head injury in the team’s 44-14 win at Warren County.
“A lot of times as coaches and players we get caught up in wins and losses,” Wyant added. “Ultimately these kids have learned that life is short and there’s nothing you can take for granted. You never know when it might be you.”
Bramble remains in critical condition at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The Stars, coming off an impressive 34-17 opening-round win over Bearden, are set to face crosstown rival Blackman in the second round.
Nashville Christian and McGavock have been forced to deal with similar hardships this season, each losing teammates.
On July 31, just 22 days before the team’s season-opening game at Red Boiling Springs, Nashville Christian junior Mickey Martin was killed in an automobile accident while driving home from a preseason practice.
“It truly was a devastating event,” Nashville Christian coach Jeff Brothers said. “There is no script for that.”
Martin’s two passengers — teammates Mareio McGraw and Brant Lawless — were hospitalized from the single-car crash. Both were released from Vanderbilt later that night.
“This team has come together as a family,” added NCS senior captain Nathan Hargrove. “(Martin) was incomparable. If you looked like you were having a bad day, he’d stop what he was doing, come talk to you and just try to make you smile. Even if you didn’t know him, he’d make the effort. He was an amazing person.”
Beyond that, Martin was also a standout on the field for Nashville Christian. As a sophomore in 2014, Martin led the team in yards receiving (306) and interceptions (6) and concluded the season with 11 total touchdowns to help lead the Eagles to a 12-1 record and a Class 1A semifinal appearance.
“We just wrapped our arms around each other that night, literally, and (Martin’s) family was very much a part of that,” Brothers said. “They helped us by showing us their strength and resilience.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, the same day as McGavock’s Week 4 matchup with Cane Ridge, Raiders senior football player and wrestler Hunter Jackson was found dead in his home after taking his own life.
“I was there in the morning after they had found him,” McGavock coach Jay Gore said. “I called a meeting that morning with our team. Our principal (Robbin Wall) told our team what had happened. There were a lot of kids just walking around the halls that day, stunned. At that young age they can’t make sense of it, and that was probably the toughest thing to deal with.
“There were different reactions from different kids — some sad, some angry and everything in between.”
Nashville Christian, Siegel and McGavock have persevered and put together solid football seasons, each advancing to the second round of the state playoffs.
“He (Martin) is certainly with us in spirit, and he’s still a part of this team in so many ways,” said Brothers, whose players sport an “MM7” patch on their chests, along with a No. 7 decal on their helmets. “Bryce Collier wears his jersey number because he feels the way we all feel. We still want Martin out there with us.”
The outpouring of support from across the country has certainly helped.
“We didn’t want to just beat it over everyone’s head, ‘This is for Mickey and shame on you for opposing us!’” Brothers said. “But it’s a time where something transcends the game. Even opponents who are in some way rivals, they knew we were hurting, and they were hurting for us.”
Wyant and the Stars’ experience was very much the same.
“I’ve got more stories than you’ve probably got ink,” Wyant said. “The Warren County community, the Coffee County community and the Bearden community, they’ve all been very sensitive and have really done some heart-warming things for our program and our school.”
Prior to the Stars’ Sept. 4 matchup at Oakland — just two days after Loupe’s passing — referee Bobby Rollins presented an envelope to Wyant, saying, “Give this to the Loupe family.” Enclosed was Rollins’ paycheck for working the game.
The booster club at rival Oakland also passed around a collection hat during the Patriots’ opening-round playoff win over William Blount and donated the proceeds to Bramble’s family. The Tennessee Titans recently presented Baylor’s younger siblings, Macy and Brady, with a No. 33 Tennessee Titans jersey with Bramble’s name on the back.
“What it did for their spirits was really just unreal,” Wyant said. “I’ve gotten emails from across the nation, and I’ve gotten cards to send to the Bramble family from all over.”
‘This is just a game’
It was difficult to focus on football but what happened allowed Brothers, Gore and Wyant to instill a meaningful message to their players.
“Unfortunately part of life is death and tragedy,” Brothers said. “Whether it is death or whether it’s severe injury, it all kind of brings you back to this is just a game. The words we speak to our kids that don’t have anything to do with football, situations like these give those words more traction in the minds of young men.”
Added Gore: ”Our motto has always been, ‘Hold on, persevere and overcome.’ We talked about that, but we also talked about how sometimes life kicks you to the curb and you can’t handle it all by yourself. But I want the kids to realize that their coaches are here for them.”
Wyant had a similar message for his grieving squad.
“We’ve talked to the kids extensively about how these things are tragic, but also how you can’t spend every minute of your day mourning over losses,” he said. “There’s life out there to be lived, and to let football be that 2- or 2-1/2 hour escape from some of those thoughts that are going through your head.”