COLUMBUS, N.C. — Marshall Lipscomb barely heard the distorted voice coming from his radio.
As a Polk County EMT and firefighter, Lipscomb was used to the background noise. Dispatch was reporting a serious car accident off Pea Ridge Road, but with a rare day off, Lipscomb walked out the door, heading to breakfast with his wife.
His cellphone rang while he was driving.
“My assistant captain, James Waters, called me and asked me to pull over,” Lipscomb said. “I pulled over at a church and got out of my car. Then he told me that one of my family members died in the wreck. He told me it was my nephew, Markell.”
On July 6, Markell Lipscomb – an incoming senior and athlete at Polk County High School — was killed in an accident while riding in the back seat of his friend’s car.
Police said excessive speed was a factor in the wreck that flipped the car and sent it crashing into a tree. Two other teens in the vehicle, the 17-year-old driver and a 17-year-old passenger, survived the crash.
“Just like that, he was taken from me,” said Lipscomb, who acted as Markell’s surrogate father.
The next few days were a blur. Funeral arrangements were made at McFarland Chapel. Five days after the wreck, the chapel was standing room only as the community came to mourn. At the center of the congregation was a sea of blue and silver.
Every member of the Polk County football team was there, wearing their uniforms in an act of unity. Six players walked Markell’s casket into the chapel.
Polk County coach Bruce Ollis was asked to speak during the funeral.
“I remember seeing him and thinking that he was just asleep,” Ollis said. “I felt like I could shake him and tell him that it was time to get up and go. I think that was the moment it was real for our guys. When they realized, he was gone.”
High school football teams regularly shoulder the expectations of entire towns on Friday nights, but rarely are they asked to bear the weight of a community tragedy.
“You have to hold it together for other people,” said senior running back Elijah Sutton, who also played on the basketball team with Markell. “You can let it out. You can cry. You can let people see it. But you have to hold it together for his family, for the people who were even closer to him than us. It’s hard. It’s still hard. I think about it when I wake up, when I go to sleep. Especially when we play football.”
Over a month after his death, Markell’s memory looms large over the team.
His No. 30 jersey hangs in his locker, put up by his teammates, who walk by it each day as they head to practice.
“It’s weird. It’s like there is always something missing in your life,” senior Mitchell Yoder said. “Like a hole you can’t quite fill. Football helps. It makes you remember the good times.”