“Never Forget” is more than a saying stamped on the metal plaque that’s screwed into the stone that sits next to the entrance to the Mainland High School football field.
“Never Forget” is more than a phrase that’s printed on T-shirts and pasted across the front of the golf cart that rests to the side of the Mustangs’ practice field on a warm and wet September afternoon.
“Never Forget” is more than a motto.
One year after unimaginable tragedy, those two words have lost none of the meaning, none of their power, none of their ability to reflect the sorrow and underscore the search for solace – the conflicting need of survivors to both look back and move on.
“It’s no different,” veteran Mainland coach Bob Coffey said of the mood around his team, which is a little more than a year removed from the Aug. 20, 2011 morning when four players were killed in an automobile accident after leaving practice. “It’s very much like last year. People were always saying time would make a difference but they were wrong.
“Time hasn’t helped that much.”
The Mustangs went on last season. They played their first game three weeks after the accident on the Garden State Parkway that took the lives of Casey Brenner, 17; Edgar Bozzi, 16; Nick Connor, 16; and Dean Khoury, 15.
They went to practice every day. They took bus rides to away games. They made that familiar walk from the locker room to the “Mustang Corral” for home games.
They won five and lost five. They found some comfort in the routine of the week, in the excitement of the games, in the competition.
“Football was kind of an escape for us last year,” Mainland senior running back/linebacker Colin O’Shea said. “It was a chance to kind of get your mind off things. It was a chance for us all to be together.”
A year later, little has changed. Maybe next year will be different. Maybe three years from now, or five -- when everybody from this team has graduated, and the stone with the plaque is worn smooth by time and the touch of all those hands – things will be closer to normal for the Mustangs.
But not now. Coffey notes that Conner and Khoury would have been seniors in this year’s team. And that three of the boys who survived the accident are members of the team. And that senior two-way lineman Ryan Brenner lost his brother on that day.
The Mustangs have around 30 seniors. They are a close-knit group of athletes from the three towns that send students to Mainland – Linwood, Northfield and Somers Point.
“When we were in eighth grade, we were all rivals but we knew we’d be all together in high school,” O’Shea said. “We always said, ‘Wait until senior year’ and now it’s here.”
They have new uniforms, courtesy of Under Armour after Mainland won a national contest in January for demonstrating school spirit. They will look different this season, with black helmets and black pants – a sharp contrast to the green-and-white design of the past.
They should be a stronger team this season, with all those seniors, with the size and the skill to contend in the Cape-Atlantic League’s revamped American Division as well as the South Jersey Group 4 playoff field.
But that’s just the outside, the stuff that folks see from the other side of the fence. Coffey said things are the same inside the locker room and inside those shiny new uniforms.
“It’s complicated,” said Coffey, who is beginning his 28th season. “There’s no magic, no secret way of dealing with this. We stay together. We help each other. It is what it is.”
The Mustangs open the season Friday night at Pleasantville in a conference cross-over game. Their home opener will be Sept. 14 against Millville, and they will take the familiar walk in those unfamiliar uniforms, and they will touch that stone on their way on the field.
And maybe, just maybe, they’ll find a way this season to look back and move ahead at the same time, to hold tight and to let go, just a little.
But they'll never forget.
-- Phil Anastasia