By Marty O'Brien, email@example.com
6:42 PM EDT, October 30, 2013
Ken Bennett had just finished a long day as Poquoson High athletic director at about 10:30 Tuesday night when he heard the news that New Kent High football player Jacob Vick had collapsed on the field at practice and died later that day.
Bennett's first instinct was to text New Kent athletic director Julie Ellis to offer his sympathy and any help he could give. Few understand the impact the death a young athlete can have on a school and small community as deeply as Bennett.
During 20-plus years as a coach, teacher and athletic director at Poquoson, he has mourned the death of four student-athletes. But this one, he realized, was more rare and heartbreaking because it happened during an athletic activity — not unlike Joe Thomas' death during a Poquoson basketball game in 1978 or Joy Meyer's during a practice run for Menchville's girls cross country team in August.
"It not only effects the athletes, but because many students in small high schools play multiple sports, it has a wide-ranging affect inside the entire student body," Bennett said. "It's going to be a tough few days and a tough thing to work through, and because it happened on the school grounds that's going to make it tougher on some folks."
Vick, a 15-year-old sophomore who started at linebacker for the Trojans, collapsed during team drills Tuesday evening. New Kent Sheriff F.W. Howard told the Tidewater Review on Wednesday that dispatch received a call at 5:02 p.m., stating that a "football player was down."
According to New Kent coach Dan Rounds, Vick was taken to VCU Medical Center in Richmond, where he was pronounced dead.
The cause of death is unknown. Howard told the Tidewater Review that his office is not investigating Vick's passing, but is working on an "informational" report that should be completed by the end of the week. Howard said that any time there is an unexpected death, a medical examiner will decide whether or not to perform an autopsy.
New Kent Schools Superintendent Dr. Rick Richardson offered the Vick family condolences on behalf of the school board and school community Wednesday, saying, "We can only imagine the extent of the grief they are feeling through this very tragic loss." Richardson said that New Kent High's administration and staff will not comment further at this time.
Ellis has confirmed that the Trojans' varsity football game at Bruton on Friday at 7 p.m. will be played as scheduled.
Coaches and athletic directors whose schools have dealt with similar tragedies said practicing and playing will be a test of inner strength for all who are a part of the New Kent High community.
"It's going to be a test of fortitude for the players and coaches to keep it together," said former Tabb athletic director and assistant football coach Willard Hunt, who said two Tabb football players died in car accidents during his time as a coach. "Do you cancel the rest of the season or do you play it for him?
"It's like, 'God, how can we go on?' because every practice will be an instant reminder of their teammate who died."
Don Ward was the head football coach at Poquoson in August 1996, when Michael Green died from head injuries suffered when he fell off of a car on which he was "surfing." Many who knew Green, a rising freshman, felt he was going to become the school's next star football player and AA state wrestling champion.
"He was a big kid and probably would've become an outstanding tight end, defensive end or linebacker," said Ward, a legendary coach in the town who guided the Islanders to the 2004 state final. "New Kent is similar to Poquoson, and when something like that happens in a small community where everybody knows everybody, it has a huge impact on the students, coaches and the town.
"They actually had his funeral in the school gymnasium."
At Sussex Central, where popular and idolized quarterback TyQuan Johnson was shot and killed by stray gunfire at his 2012 graduation party, the school maintained a memorial to him for the next school year. Longtime Tigers coach Curtis Jefferson said that memorial was only recently removed.
"It wasn't a sign of disrespect, but it was an attempt to move on," Jefferson said. "I'm not going to lie to you, that entire 2012 season (during which the Tigers reached the Division 1 state semifinals in his memory) was about TyQuan, but we felt moving on was part of the healing process."
Healing is about time, said Miles Blount, the athletic director at Smithfield, where popular football player Ashton "Boogie" Gatewood died in 2009 of cancer. The players dedicated their 2009 season to Boogie and tied for the Bay Rivers District championship.
"One thing you know about young people is that they are resilient and they will bounce back reliably," Blount said. "But it's very tragic when they lose a classmate, and at the moment it happens it rocks them to the core."
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963
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