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He told them he was dealing with weight issues and thought maybe he shouldn’t be playing.
"But he told us this was his family," Francis said. "This is what he wanted to do and he was going to play no matter what."
As players prepared to practice with helmets and pads for the first time, Sam hoped to win a starting position on the JV team. His coach wanted to see his dedication on the field, and Sam planned to prove it during Hell Week.
As Roedel drove him to the school, the boy still looked upset from the fight with his mother the night before — a shouting match over a pot of soup. Roedel knew how much football meant to Sam, and she prayed to God to bless him.
That morning at practice, Sam flew around the field, playing better than he’d ever played before.
When Roedel picked him later that morning, Sam beamed. She took him home, told him to rest for the evening practice. Roedel cooked a roast for his dinner before she picked up Merry from McDonald’s around 4 p.m.
It was 4:16, Merry recalls, when they arrived at the house.
Sam wasn’t in his bed. They heard the water running, which wasn’t unusual; Sam often took baths to relax himself. They called his name but heard nothing back. They looked down. Water seeped from under the bathroom door.
As Roedel ran outside screaming for someone to call 911, Merry opened the door with a coat hanger. Her 15-year-old son was slumped over the tub, his face in the water.
She tried to pull him up by his stiff shoulders.
She screamed at the paramedics to do more.
Hundreds of candles cut through the darkness the following night.
At the vigil, Merry and Roedel sobbed at the football team’s guttural cries, cheers for a fallen teammate that the two women swear sounded like repentance from a few.
There have been lessons, indeed, in Sam’s death, his teammates said.
"A lot of time, there are seniors who are pretty mean to freshmen," Francis said. "This year our senior class made it a point not to be those typical seniors. We weren’t ever that bad, but especially after that we’ve come together."
At the funeral, two players in particular came up to Merry and Roedel and sobbed in their arms, apologizing for the rocks and the missing coat and the cruelty of their youth.
"We had to let one go," Roedel said, "but we got a whole team."
Players gathered in the high school parking lot on the night of the funeral, ordered pizza and remembered Sam, even playing a game of Magic. Gomez laughed recalling how long Sam had begged a friend to let him drive his truck, only to say he was too scared to do it when the boy finally relented; he chuckled at the time during a drill when the coach screamed to stop and chop, and Sam pretended to cut off his arms.
A few hours earlier, their white shirts and ties poking out from under their jerseys, they had carried Sam’s casket from the hearse through the cemetery. Now the stars swirled above them as they talked about how they wanted to dedicate the year to Sam, to win it all.Next Page >
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