STRATFORD — When they were sophomores at Bunnell High, coach Rich Diedrichsen would insert them all into the game at the same time. He called them The Force.
Two years later, in the autumn of 1991, they would have another name.
“We called ourselves the Senior Seven,” Ryan Jockers said. “Jeff Ramadanovic, Bob Chagnon, Stew Diaz … we were a band of brothers. Stratford was a football town and we had a lot of firsts in soccer.”
There was a league title. There was the first state tournament victory, Diaz assisting on the game’s only goal against North Haven. Jockers scored it. They had been on the town’s first travel team. Diaz was all-league. Jockers was all-state.
During their senior year, new turf was being placed on the Bunnell pitch. The Bulldogs would play their games at Penders Field at Stratford High. Nearly three decades later this is where Jockers serves as the first-year Stratford boys head coach and, yes, where Diaz assists him.
“When the season started we were kicking it around, modeling touch drills with the kids,” Jockers said. “After all those years, on this field, it was so much fun.”
“Brothers,” Diaz said.
Four knee surgeries have curtailed Diaz, but this was never going to be a story about one man’s knee. It is about two men’s hearts. It is about the unspeakable tragedy they would share while they were in college and a game that would bring them back together.
November 5, 1993, a Friday, was a rainy one on the Connecticut shoreline. Conditions were slick. Autumn leaves had fallen. Erin Jockers and Debi Diaz were riding in a car driven by Joseph Yuhas. They were returning from renting a movie, Jockers remembers. They were returning from trying on dresses the night before the Junior Ring Dance at Bunnell, Diaz remembers. Maybe it was both.
News reports said it was 8:15 p.m. when Yuhas, driving north on Nichols Avenue, lost control of his car in the rain, crossed the center line and struck a southbound vehicle.
“They weren’t a mile from our house,” Jockers said.
Jockers was about 75 miles away at UConn that night. He was pledging a fraternity, went to a leadership conference the next morning and didn’t get back to his dorm room until mid-afternoon. This was before cellphones. There was a string of messages from his dad.
“He spoke in a voice I’d never heard him use before, stating the facts,” Jockers said.
Ramadanovic was attending Assumption in Worcester. Chagnon was at University of Hartford. They went to Storrs and brought Jockers home. He visited Erin that Saturday night at Bridgeport Hospital. She was in a coma. The next morning, doctors met with the family. A decision was made to take her off life support.
It was such a blur Jockers does not remember seeing Diaz that weekend. Debi also was in critical condition at Bridgeport Hospital’s ICU. Stew, who was playing soccer at Stonehill College, was actually home that weekend, unusual for a soccer autumn.
“I’m thankful I was right there after the call to support my family,” Diaz said.
These brothers each had one biological sibling.
“At 19, here I was saying my final words to my sister,” Jockers said softly. “She was 16.”
Erin Jockers died Nov. 7, 1993. After the funeral, after the mourning, he returned to UConn.
“I tried to deal with it, tried to escape from it at the same time,” Jockers said. “And then Debi died in December and we went through it all over again.”
During that wonderful senior year for Ryan and Stew on the Penders pitch, Erin, only a freshman, had been the team manager for the boys team. Erin and Debi loved the game just like their bothers and they would play on Bunnell’s first girls soccer team.
“I grew up with a great family and childhood,” Jockers said. “I went from having a whole family to one that wasn’t. Suddenly, I was dealing with a loss that I was unprepared for and seeing my parents go through it. My parents are amazing, strong and wonderful people. It forced me to grow up. It was difficult. I spent a lot of college trying to figure out bigger questions we have about life.”
Stew left Stonehill and played at Virginia Tech with his cousin. He had a chance to play a bit in Scotland. As the years rolled on, the two didn’t see a lot of each other. From a Colombian family, Diaz would study indigenous cultures in South America. An anthropologist, he returned to the States nearly a decade ago. He has taught most often at prep schools and did some coaching.
“Debi’s death started a process for me where I had a lot of questions,” Diaz said. “It motivated me for to go to South America and understand my roots, to know my origins.”
During graduate school, Diaz said he came across a man studying career moves and dealing with profound change. Loss, self-blame, exploration, that third stage, Diaz said, was “my twenties.”
“It can be the most confusing, but ultimately the most rewarding because it takes you to the final stage of commitment,” Diaz said. “The process has led me to a commitment to teach, coaching, working with indigenous communities.”
Since 1996, the Sterling House athletic program in Stratford has honored both girls with annual awards in their honor. There was a banquet last March.
“I see Stew there,” Jockers said. “I was so surprised and happy. He seemed to be all over the place. For years our meetings were sparse. But when we saw each other, it was something deep between us.
“He told me he was in New York, doing some teaching and coaching. I told him how I had been an assistant coach at Bunnell.”
Jockers didn’t get the open head coaching job he wanted at Bunnell this year. He did get the Stratford job. It was early August, only a few weeks before tryouts and Jockers still hadn’t settled on an assistant. The family had spent most of the summer in Old Saybrook. They were home a few days in August. Jockers was playing his guitar, relaxing on a rainy day when his wife Keri and their two children decided to go to the Stratford library.
When Keri returned she told him they’d seen Stew.
“Stew’s in town?” said Jockers, a teacher at Helen Keller Middle School in Easton. “I immediately texted him: Will you be my assistant? He said, ‘My heart tells me to do this, but I’ve got to figure out some things.’”
Blending Spanish and anthropology wherever he taught, Diaz, has worked to develop sister schools. Donation drives for clothing, school supplies are brought to northern Colombia.
Diaz was able got a job teaching at the ALPHA program in Stratford. Yes, he would coach. The two, bonded by tragedy, would find themselves back together. Rooted in the soccer upbringing, they view the game in the same ways. As teachers, the have similar temperaments.
“This is a brotherly bound,” Diaz said. “The good and the bad we’ve been through, it has enhanced our relationship. We both have a deep faith. And I just get this sense we are doing what our sisters would want us to do.”
“We all were such good friends in high school,” Jockers said. “Then we weren’t really part of each other’s lives for a long time, even though we were deeply connected. To come back together, not only in soccer, but on a field where we had special moments. This is wonderful.”