Gorches: This game was about much more than football
By Steve T. Gorches 314-3797 or email@example.com September 27, 2013 11:28PM
LaPorte Slicer team captains bring the jersey of their teammate, Jake West, with them for the pre-game coin toss before Friday night's game at Merrillville. West died earlier this week during practice. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 29, 2013 6:13AM
Anyone who witnessed the 15 minutes after Friday night’s football game at Merrillville had a hard time holding back tears.
Hey, I’m man enough to admit I was crying.
Once the final seconds ticked off the clock in Merrillville’s 34-13 victory over LaPorte, four Pirates headed toward the south end zone to the flagpole on the left and started bringing down the flag used just for this particular game, which really wasn’t about the actual game.
It was an orange and white flag with a No. 26 in honor of LaPorte linebacker Jake West, who died on Wednesday. He collapsed while running laps during the Slicers’ practice and died about an hour later. The autopsy revealed he had thinning of the right ventricle walls, preventing the heart from pumping blood properly, a rare condition that wouldn’t be revealed in a routine physical.
Those three Pirates players walked to midfield, handed the flag to a couple Slicers players and then hugged them.
Then after the players on both teams gathered in a big group — no handshake line since that was held before the game after a moment of silence for West — both fans sections chanted “Twenty-six, twenty-six” at the same time. Soon after, both sections chanted “We believe in 26.”
It just wasn’t about football on this particular night.
After the LaPorte coaches and players gathered together, head coach Bob Schellinger and two of his players — Drew Kessler and Noah Boardman — gave West’s white No. 26 jersey to his parents and sister and they all hugged.
How could you not have tears gushing down your cheeks?
“I’ve been crying for the last 10 minutes,” Schellinger said. “These kids went through something most adults have never gone through in seeing one of their friends pass away in front of them.”
Some may think it was wrong to play the game so soon after a player who was so liked by everyone died, but Schellinger said it wasn’t up to him or the school.
“It was up to two groups of people and both had to say yes,” Schellinger explained. “Number one, it was up to these players. And number two, Jake’s family.”
If it was up to me as a parent, I don’t know if I could have said yes beforehand. But after seeing the support of Merrillville and LaPorte fans, how could anyone not understand it was the right thing to do?
After all, it wasn’t about football.
Schellinger couldn’t say enough about the support — not only from LaPorte faithful, who filled the opposing stands at DeMaree Stadium more than I’ve seen in a while, but the Merrillville side in which orange was prevalent, and all across the state.
“I give so much credit to (Merrillville athletic director) Janis Qualizza and (Merrillville head coach) Zac Wells. But it was all over the place — Michigan City, Lake Central, Bremen, New Prairie and Decatur Central. That’s the fraternity of high school football. That’s what it’s all about. At this moment I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than coach these kids.”
Everyone on both teams had No. 26 stickers on their helmets and the officials had it on their caps. The signs littered both sides of the field, from a huge No. 26 on the Merrillville side, to “Jake we are all in” and “Never forget Jake” on the LaPorte side. But the most impactful gesture may have come from a fairly famous Merrillville graduate who took time to talk to LaPorte’s players at halftime.
“It was awesome,” Schellinger said of former Merrillville, Purdue and current Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Mike Neal speaking words of wisdom to the Slicers.
“He talked about life and he talked about faith and he talked about being brothers.”
Schellinger also added that “life is bigger than football and wins and losses,” but anyone who needed something like a high school player dying to figure that out needs to find some perspective.
“There’s nothing worse than losing a child,” said Marie Gilliland, wife of LaPorte athletic director Ed Gilliland. “It’s been a tough week for all of us.”
That’s obvious, but it was made easier by the outpouring of support.
“The only way to handle this is the overwhelming support from the fans, the school and the community,” said LaPorte County police officer and school board member Michael Kellams. “What kind of a message does it send to see the orange and black in the Merrillville stands. It’s great to see that you’re loved and supported by kids 60 miles away.”
It showed that life isn’t always about winning and losing, and it’s not even about how you play the game like the overused cliché says. Sometimes, it’s just that you do play the game and cherish every moment we have on this Earth to play any game.