ENFIELD — With players lined up moments before the midfield coin toss, the captains approached the coach.
It wasn’t in the plan on this first home game at Enfield High School, but the team leaders asked if they could carry Justin Brady’s No. 71 jersey to midfield just as they did a week before at Hall-West Hartford.
Brady, a junior, was fatally stabbed two weeks ago and his presence was very much felt Friday night on the field behind the high school.
How do teenagers process something so tragic?
“We just want to keep him in our spirits,” said senior Cam LeBlanc, who held the jersey during the pregame ceremony.
There would be a moment of silence and the jersey would rest on the team’s bench throughout the night. Enfield, fueled by emotion, guided by heavy hearts, wanted nothing more than to win its home opener with the spirit of their teammate among the players.
And they nearly did. Conard-West Hartford needed a late stop to preserve a 31-27 victory as Enfield (2-1) fell for the first time this season.
But the loss is bearable for a group of kids grappling with questions far greater than football — life and death. Brady was a popular junior, a member of the football and basketball teams as a sophomore. He was stabbed to death on Sept. 10 and Shyhiem Adams, 18, has been charged with manslaughter.
The team attended Brady’s wake Sept. 14, boarded a bus for West Hartford and proceeded to beat Hall.
“The emotion was palpable,” Enfield coach James Lyver said.
There was a moment of silence and the captains carried Brady’s jersey to the coin toss in West Hartford. The home opener was supposed to be more muted, with a moment of silence and the jersey simply draped on the bench.
But the captains improvised and the coach embraced the plan.
“We definitely wanted to do something for him this week, because it was our first home game of the season and our first time being without him at home,” LeBlanc said. “We didn’t do anything too crazy. …. But he was in our spirits.”
There were grief counselors at the school in the days after the death and some students have created bracelets with Brady’s name on them. The entire school community has been dealing with the loss.
“It’s brought us closer together,” LeBlanc said.
But for a football team attempting to kick start its program, the loss of a friend has turned a group of teammates into a family. And along the way, the program that entered the season with three victories in 21 games over the past two seasons has played with passion and tenacity.
The result: two victories in two games before a close loss Friday night.
Against Conard, Enfield fell behind by two touchdowns early but never wilted. And in the waning minutes, the Eagles were threatening to take the lead before turning the ball over on downs with 2 minutes, 17 seconds remaining.
“I think it’s our identity, really,” Lyver said. “That’s what the town of Enfield represents, is perseverance. Our kids have a fighter’s mentality. Doesn’t matter what point of the game it is. We’re going to continue to fight back.”
Make no mistake: Enfield desperately wanted to leave the field with a victory in honor of Brady. Football — the practice, the preparation, the focus, the game — is very much a respite for the players. What better way to acknowledge their friend than to win on their home turf?
Yet there was pride in the effort, just as there has been pride in how the students have navigated the heartache of the past two weeks.
“The kids have been an amazing,” Lyver said. “I think football has been very therapeutic for them. The fact that they’ve had really heavy hearts over the last few weeks, they’ve gone through a lot and they’ve bonded together and they’ve realized that in tough times the only person that they can really rely on is going to be their brothers. And I think that’s exactly what they’ve done.
“They did that on the field, they’ve done that in the classroom, they’ve done that in the hallways, they’ve done that off the field. It’s a really tight group and I think when you go through the type of tragedy that we went through, it says so much about their character, the way that they were able to bond together. … It would have been great to get tonight’s win, to kind of keep that momentum moving forward. But I know our kids proved to themselves and our town that we’re a really good team and we’re never going to wave the white flag, That’s not who we are.”
Enfield, a town of about 44,000 that sits on the Massachusetts border, was once home to two high schools. But Enfield High and Fermi High merged and the one-school football program is in its third season.
Lyver was optimistic this would be a transformative season. It’s turning out that way, but for reasons that transcend football.
“I think this is a special group,” he said.
Said LeBlanc, “We’re close. This has pulled us closer. We’re family.”