The team as a community healer

Published 6:38 pm Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Pro, college and high school football is getting under way.

In another example of football bypassing baseball’s tradition, training camps, two-a-days and scrimmages have become the real harbingers of a new season on the American sports calendar.

The early stages of football season carry plenty of excitement, whether at Redskins Park, 100,000-seat university stadiums or on high school fields. The same anticipation that helps provide the drive for those who play the game at the college and professional levels also drives players to hours of sweating on practice fields at Lakeland, King’s Fork, Nansemond River or Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.

I am a middling athlete and an avid sports fan, but I never wanted anything to do with putting on pads and a helmet and hitting someone or being hit. Still, there’s something exhilarating about football.

Monday was the start of another football season. But the feeling of fun and excitement that normally comes with the start of that season wasn’t around this year, because the city had lost a bright young football star to an act of senseless violence.

On Sept. 3, during the first game of Lakeland High School’s season, the Cavaliers will take the field against Wilson. On the surface, at least, there will be lots of excitement. Thoughts are sure, however, to turn to Tyquan Lewis and Michael Lee, both murdered in the prime of their lives during the past year. Perhaps those memories will even inspire the team to a greater effort and a more successful season.

Other schools in Suffolk have faced such losses in the past, though not in recent years through an act of murder.

Randy Burden was a Nansemond River alum and Chowan alum before going on to be a pitcher in the L.A. Angels minor-league system in 2002. While home in Suffolk during the offseason, Burden died in his sleep at age 23.

The No. 18 jersey on the press box at Nansemond River’s baseball field is for him. Burden, a graphic design major at Chowan, painted the “Nansemond River” on the dugout at the field.

It’s been almost two decades now since Kevin Blanchard, just before his senior year started at Nansemond-Suffolk, was killed in a nighttime crash with a truck on Route 460. Blanchard was a three-sport standout at NSA. He was considered a leader on all three teams even before his senior year.

Blanchard’s No. 40 is still retired by all Saints sports teams. A scholarship in his name is awarded to two junior multi-sport athletes, who are also outstanding students, at NSA each year.

It will come as cold comfort to those whose grief is still fresh, but such reminders can become healing tools, as both Nansemond River and Nansemond-Suffolk students and athletes have learned.

It might feel like an unnatural role, but the Cavaliers’ football team will be at the center of the healing process for Lakeland High School in the coming weeks and months as it finds a way to honor the memory of those young men whose lives have been cut short.