By Joseph Santoliquito
LINWOOD, N.J. (CBS) — The twisted white hospital bracelet still sits on his bedroom dresser with the date 8-20-11.
Kenny Randall looks at it every day. He can’t help it. The memory is too visceral to surrender completely.
Sometimes he’s there again, descending the steep hill, hanging upside down fastened in by a seatbelt, looking out the passenger’s window at the expanding pool of blood on the street. His friend’s blood. The guys who just moments ago he was laughing with that morning.
Randall was entering his sophomore year, a kid without much direction then who rarely peered into the future. He’s a 6-foot-3, 295-pound young man now, planning to head to Temple University on a football scholarship. Over the last two years, he’s grown up significantly — emotionally, psychologically, physically.
What he endured can age anyone fast.
The two-way standout at Mainland Regional (Linwood, N.J.) was in a 2002 Ford Explorer the morning it spilled over a crest on the Garden State Parkway, causing the SUV to tumble seven times and kill his friends. Casey Brenner (17), Edgar Bozzi and Nicholas Conner (both 16), and 15-year-old Dean Khourym all died in the accident on August 20, 2011. Four players, including Randall, survived.
Randall was haunted by nightmares and sleepless nights. Some nights he cried himself to sleep. He couldn’t eat. Through it all, he was never weighed down into the pit of self-pity, and he never wallowed forward.
Today, Randall plays for a little more than himself. He plays for them, for Nick and Dean, a pair of jokers who could always get Kenny laughing. And for Casey and Edgar, who never got a chance to enjoy their senior years. Today, Randall bears a tattoo with all of their initials on his massive left bicep, “EB, DK, NC and CB” around two interlocking horseshoes (for the Mainland Mustangs), and below the horseshoes it reads, “8-20-11.”
Randall got the tattoo this past August to signify the two-year anniversary of the morning breakfast run that ended tragically.
He feels fortunate. He still battles survivor guilt. He knows he can’t change what happened, but he also knows the more he succeeds, the more they live through him.
He fails, they fail.
“It’s why I’m dedicating my senior year to Nick, Dean, Casey and Ed,” Randall said. “There was a lot of survivor guilt. You go through days asking yourself ‘Why them and why not me?’ Every time I tried to eat, I would think about it because we were going out to get breakfast that morning. So I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep, either. The most I slept was a few hours a night maybe.
“It took me two years to get over it, and it’s still a battle. When I dedicated my senior season to them, that’s when I first I began really talking about it. I think about those guys every Friday night and every Thursday night at pasta parties. I think about how they didn’t get a chance to play their senior season and think about the accident and what happened to them. A lot of people say that I’m blessed. I guess I am, after what I went through.”
What Randall bore has led to an epiphany. Who he was and what he was about before the accident, and who he’s transformed into afterward.
Randall suffered a severe concussion and a torn meniscus in his right knee in the crash. But the real damage couldn’t be seen. The trauma matched what soldiers witness on a battlefield, friends suffering unspeakable injuries.
“Kenny’s always been a great kid, but he was the kind of kid you’d look at and want so much more for, and early on, you doubted whether or not he’d turn into the player you wanted him to be,” said Mainland Athletic Director Mike Gatley, who lives two doors down from Randall’s family. “The magnitude of that accident is immeasurable. It will be always with him, and it’s why you have to give credit to Kenny and to his mother and his whole family. He’s also known he has his Mainland family he can count on. What happened that day is not something that goes away. And look at him, he has bounced back tremendously, both personally and athletically.
“He could have gone one of two ways. He’s developing and growing, instead of being someone who’s on the fence. Sometimes you forget Kenny was 15 years old when the accident happened. That accident cost him his entire sophomore season. He’s trying to jam three years into two,” Gatley said. “He was in the passenger’s seat. He saw his friends die. How do you get over that? Kenny has come through, which really says a lot about the kid. He’s exceeded expectations on and off the field. He’s become a leader, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Kenny one day played in the NFL. That wouldn’t surprise me.”
Mainland coach Bob Coffey, who’s in his 28th season, has been a wrought-iron pillar throughout everything. The school, the community and his team have leaned on his considerable character to keep pulling them forward.
A smile creases the veteran coach’s face at the mere mention of Randall. He calls Randall “the best athlete I’ve ever coached.” The Mustangs are 1-3 this season, but Randall has been an optimistic glimmer, with one sack and six tackles for minus-9 yards in losses. He’s projected to be a defensive tackle at Temple and has been constantly double-teamed this season.
“Kenny’s performance is like something out of a movie. He’s so good, and he’s been so consistent that he’s come a million miles as far as leadership, and he’s been unbelievably productive,” said Coffey, who Randall sees every morning and asks what he can do to help the team. “He can play for Alabama right now, I firmly believe that. I don’t know if I would have said that a few years ago.
“Kenny was a big disappointment at this point his sophomore year. He was going through the motions of life — as an athlete and as a person. He’s been so unbelievable how he’s changed his life around. What he’s been doing on and off the field is incredible, because what he saw and went through, I couldn’t imagine. That day was the worst day of my life, and I wasn’t there. So you can only imagine what he’s overcome. The tragedy has brought us to know you just live every day with a purpose and a plan.”
The platitudes glance off him. Randall smiles and shrugs. It pleases him that he makes people around him happy. But underlying the easy smile and cool, affable demeanor is a seething frustration for four friends and what their lives could have been.
“There’s been a lot of anger that builds from it. I take the anger with me and I take it out on the field and on the basketball court,” Randall said. “Last year I bottled a lot of anger up, and I didn’t show any emotion. That’s not a good way to deal with it. I changed this around.
“They didn’t have a chance to play their senior years and I have to let it all out. All I have to do is look at the bracelet on my dresser and their initials on my arm. It reminds me of who I am and who I’m doing this for. I can’t fail. I fail, they fail.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.