Moments after they helped eulogize fallen teammate Justin Skaggs in Monday's memorial service, and after the reporters, well-wishers and television cameras had departed, members of the Utah Blaze met privately to talk about how they were going to cope with the loss of not only their friend and emotional leader, but a very good football player.
It was then that backup quarterback and holder Jason Gesser, one of Skaggs' best friends, suggested a word that the Blaze believe will carry them through the difficult weeks ahead.
"The word this week is 'celebrate' because if nothing else, Skaggs was always a positive person, always trying to go 110 percent," said star receiver Siaha Burley. "We decided we are going to concentrate on celebrating his life, rather than mourn the whole time. We mourned for him and his family [over the weekend and on Monday], but now we want to celebrate his life and show that he didn't die in vain. We want to use his energy in a positive way."
Skaggs died last Friday after a short battle with brain cancer. The Blaze return to the field for the first time since the receiver/linebacker's death when they play the Avengers at Los Angeles on Sunday. Kickoff for Utah's regular-season finale is 8:30 p.m. MDT.
To a man, the Blaze say they are treating it like a playoff game, and well they should.
If Utah (7-8) wins, it will make the Arena Football League playoffs for the second straight season, and will more than likely return the following week to Los Angeles to play the same Avengers (9-6) in a first-round playoff game. The Blaze can lose and still make the playoffs if Nashville loses, but that's not likely because the 6-9 Kats host 4-11 Grand Rapids in their finale.
If the Blaze win and 8-7 Colorado somehow manages to defeat 14-1 Dallas at home on Monday night, the Blaze would retain the sixth seed and would travel to the loser of Saturday's Kansas City-Chicago game for a first-round game.
"No doubt about it, it is a playoff game," coach Danny White said. "We have to assume that Nashville is going to beat Grand Rapids. And we want to go into the playoffs on a positive note, anyway. So, our whole theme this week is, 'Let's get back to the way we played against Colorado.' We were hitting on all cylinders, playing well. If we can do that, there's no telling how far we can go."
There's also no way to determine how Skaggs' sudden death will affect the players once they roll into Los Angeles to face a team they have beaten three times in two years. All the games have been razor-close.
After two practices this week, White said the energy level has been high and lineman Hans Olsen said heavy hearts "have turned into lifted hearts" because all the players can think about is how the rest of the season has been dedicated to Skaggs.
"If we can't get up for this game for him, then we can't play [football]," Gesser said. "Then, something is wrong. I think we will be able to do it. It has been weird these past few [practices], because usually every day after practice I am throwing with [Skaggs]. Now, [Tuesday] it was [Steve Videtich] and today it was Aaron Boone. It's just different."
In Monday's players' meeting, it was reportedly suggested that nothing short of hoisting an ArenaBowl championship trophy on July 29 will be good enough, but Olsen, Gesser, Burley and quarterback Joe Germaine weren't ready to talk publicly about that this week.
"There has been talk, and there has been personal agreement that whatever happens in this season, it will be done for Justin," Olsen acknowledged. "The rest of the season, and as long as I play football, I will always play for Justin, and try to live up to his legacy, try to live up to his standards, the way he would do it on the field. That alone will push anyone to excellence."
Olsen said that White "made an amazing statement" before the Blaze returned to practice on Tuesday, their first formal gathering since they lost 70-49 to San Jose on June 9.
"Coach said, "Don't confuse doing it for Justin and not having to work for it. Do what Justin would do, and work hard and win in that fashion.' So that's kind of what we are doing right now. We are taking it upon ourselves to make sure that we don't just rely on Justin, that we rely on ourselves to work hard and put all the effort that's needed into this to come out with a big victory."
The Blaze announced Wednesday that funeral services have been set for Skaggs in his hometown of Springfield, Mo., on Sunday at 1 p.m. MDT at the Cornerstone Church, 1701 S. Fort Street. Blaze owner John Garff and team president Jason Jones will represent the club at the services.
Donations for Skaggs' family can be made to the Justin Skaggs Memorial Account by visiting any Zions Bank location. Checks can also be mailed to: Zions Bank, 1 South Main Street, Suite 100, SLC, UT 84111.
Utah Blaze at L.A. Avengers
8:30 p.m. MDT
TV: FSN Utah