By Joseph Santoliquito
LINWOOD, N.J. — There is laughter on the practice field this afternoon.
It’s the kind of pleasant sound that drifts into the air and finds welcome ears. It’s the simple things the Mainland Regional (Linwood, NJ) football team and coaching staff can find solace in these days, because that’s how things are measured in this picturesque community of Americana. It’s what alleviates the unthinkable strain that burdens the Linwood, Northfield and Somers Point areas that feed into Mainland and intersect on a bike path.
It comes with the laughter of kids at a late-October football practice. It comes with each passing day.
They cope. That’s all they can do, because the pain lingers.
The flag in front of Mainland, nestled in this bucolic patch of southern New Jersey, still flies at half-mast. Mustangs head football coach Bob Coffey’s voice still cracks with emotion when he talks about that gorgeous Aug. 20 day, the kind of high-sky day where you would think nothing could possibly go wrong.
The reminders are there, too: Four names forever etched into the manes of running mustangs on a mural in front of the Mainland press box. A tiny football sticker adorns the back of each Mainland helmet with their numbers.
It started with a breakfast run to a local restaurant the morning of Aug. 20. It ended with the tragic deaths of 17-year-old Casey Brenner, Edgar Bozzi and Nicholas Conner, both 16, and 15-year-old Dean Khoury. The crash occurred after eight Mainland players piled into a 2002 Ford Explorer after a morning practice to meet teammates at the Old Country Buffet. According New Jersey State Police Spokesman Sgt. Julian Castellanos, Brenner was driving and possibly lost control while braking for traffic around a crest on the Garden State Parkway, causing the SUV to roll over and by some accounts tumble seven times. (see related story)
In the wake of the tragedy are four survivors who heard their best friend’s last words — and a football team that continues to play.
The Mustangs are 3-4 after a grueling 3-0 loss to Absegami Friday night. The loss will make it difficult for Mainland, five-time state champions under Coffey, to make the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs this year. But to some degree, the Mustangs find themselves as a team everyone wants to support.
After the accident, Mainland Athletic Director Michael Gatley, a 1980 Mainland graduate, received calls from athletic directors and coaches across the country, offering help.
Holding everything together at the eye of this event has been Coffey, who also received a tremendous outpouring from coaches locally and nationally. He’s in his 26th year as head coach of the Mustangs, and lives right across the street from the school.
Each time he put on his Mainland coaching shirt, Coffey could still see the faces of his lost players in front of him kneeling down after practice.
What’s kept him going?
“I wanted to continue doing my job as a friend to the families who lost their sons,” said Coffey, who endured more loss when the nephew he raised, Bryan Bradley, died tragically after being struck by lightning immediately following the funerals of his four players. “It’s been about keeping up a routine. But I can tell you, I ask myself ‘Why, why did this happen here, how come?’ I guess there is a reason for it. I thank God that I have a great family and great friends surrounding me. My staff has been fantastic. The community has been fantastic in coming together.
“We haven’t had time to fully reflect. We try to have daily goals. My constant message to the kids is that it’s family. We need to be diligent and try to become better as individuals, work on relationships, be good friends and be reliable to one another. I pray for those kids and their families every night, and I think about them every time I’m alone. I do it every week.”
Coffey has kept a tight rein on his players since the accident. Mainland was besieged with TV trucks filling the parking lot and media from across the country converging on this white-picket fence, tree-lined hamlet soon after the incident happened. He did not permit any of his players to talk to the media for this story, and many players, including the four surviving players on the team, are still in counseling. It’s been a slow process and football has helped the healing.
“We’re still healing, and I think that’s going to take some time to get over,” Coffey said. “It’s why I’ve been stressing it has to be more than just showing up and playing. Each one of those kids was going to be a part of this team and contribute in some way. If they were here, they would want us to keep playing hard, and playing to win. It’s why I think it has to be about winning and losing. It gives us a goal and something to look forward each week. If winning football games helps, and makes these kids feel better, that’s what it’s all about. It gives the kids something to achieve. We’re trying to win; we’ve really recovered well for an average football team. We’re playing well above our heads. It’s why winning is important to everyone, because there is a lot of football tradition here.”
Gatley walked into a dark room when he took the job as athletic director at his alma mater. He came over from nearby Hammonton High School, and was not officially on the books yet when the community was struck. Gatley knew Casey Brenner. He went to school with Casey’s father.
“The first level is shock, the next level is pain and suffering, along with laughs and cheers, because you remember the good times, then the reality hits you, and some anger, along with the questions, ‘Why these kids?’ And why over something as innocent as going to breakfast,” said Gatley, who has a graduate degree in counseling and received a great amount of support from Hammonton, which immediately released him to begin his new job early at Mainland.
“Time does heal some things, but what we’re dealing with in this community comes at a magnitude beyond that, because you’re dealing with four kids, and four families,” Gatley added. “It’s tough enough to lose one child. This community lost four. The surviving kids have been forced to grow up overnight. One of the players is my neighbor, and in talking to him, he said the kids that survived heard the last words of their friends. That’s something that stays with you.”
So the plan has come in gradual increments in reaching a level of normalcy. Linwood, Northfield and Somers Point are the kinds of neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone, and everyone comes out on Friday nights to watch the Mustangs. Mainland Superintendent Thomas Baruffi has valiantly carried the torch, along with Coffey and Gatley, in that direction. Getting back out to the games and out on the field, they’ve found, has been a strong panacea, a therapeutic first step in providing the players and the grieving families two hours of peace, watching kids be kids playing football.
“I have to wait until the season is over I think before I can reflect on anything, because the memories I have now are of the event, and that’s still very powerful,” Coffey said. “We’re dealing and watching all the people in the community and all of the love and grief and different emotions at every funeral. That’s something I’ll always remember, probably what I’ll remember the most.”
Then a whimsical, far-away look took over Coffey’s face as he thought aloud … “All four of those kids were characters,” said the coach with a smile and a slight tinge of emotion. “Dean was the instigator, kind of quiet around the coaches, but able to make his teammates laugh. Nicky was a little guy who was tough, a linebacker who loved causing havoc and disrupting everything. Edgar was well liked and was just cracking into the starting lineup as a linebacker, and Casey came back his senior year. He was a very good athlete. They all would have been on the field. They all would have helped us.
“We wrapped ourselves around a motto: We are who we are, and we’re just closer than ever, trying to live our lives. We know we can’t go back, but we can move forward and we’re doing the best we can. I know they’re watching.”
And hopefully somewhere laughing and enjoying a late-October practice with the rest of their teammates.
Reported by Joseph Santoliquito