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His deep voice cuts through the morning darkness like a tight spiral. You can hear it, even if you can’t see him.
When he yells to line up, his teammates go single file. When he walks, they follow. He is one of the leaders, trying to be the leader.
Jon Economou, all 6-foot-3, 230 pounds of him, cuts an imposing figure at Freedom High. And there is no mistaking him for anything but what he is:
He likes the sound of that.
He knows his dad would, too.
• • •
James Economou was 60 when he died Aug. 21, 2010. He had lung cancer, the fast kind that strips a man down to nothing in no time at all.
They told him he had a month to live, but he lived almost 10 more than that.
“He was strong,” Jon said.
He hid his pain as much as he could. He wanted Jon to focus on school, on his quarterbacking duties, on winning the job at Freedom, where he had transferred in spring 2010.
James had spent most of Jon’s life tutoring him, along with his oldest son, James Jr., taking him to games and practices, videotaping every play even in 2009, when he needed tubes to help him breathe.
“I was the momma’s boy,” said James Jr., “but Jon was always under my dad’s wing. My dad was really focused on my brother’s future. He really never lost focus on that.”
After two so-so seasons at Wiregrass Ranch, the big strapping kid with the even bigger right arm was ready to take Freedom by storm last spring, James was sure of that.
But cancer had tightened its grip. Jon was angry, he lashed out at every little thing, his grades slipped and his GPA fell below 3.0 for the first time.
“I couldn’t focus on anything,” he said, other than hustling home to take care of his dad, to feed him, to help him shower, to be with him.
Sometimes, he’d go in his father’s room and find him sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched over, sweating, struggling for breath.
“Dad, I’m calling the hospital,” he’d say.
“Don’t,” James begged.
“Dad,” Jon would say, his eyes stinging as he tried to hold back tears, “I have to.”
Jon says he probably called for an ambulance 20 times in that last year.
James, a building manager at University Community Hospital for more than 20 years, laughed through chemotherapy, cracked jokes at every turn, and showed Jon how to be strong.
But when you’re 16, being strong is not always an option.
Jon didn’t win the starting job that spring or summer, and when fall practice rolled around it was hard to care about football anymore.
James died two weeks before the start of the season.
“What’s the point, I thought,” Jon said. “I think for a while, I lost hope.”
He says his girlfriend Kelsey and her family helped bring him back, helped him deal with his anger. He got his football mojo back in the sixth game last season, his first at quarterback. He threw a touchdown pass and started the rest of the season.
He carried it over into the spring, getting stronger and faster.
“That’s where he got it back,” James Jr. said. “On the football field. Playing quarterback.”
• • •
So, if you wondering why the then-6-3, 200-pound kid didn’t come in last year and light the football world on fire, this is why: the hardest thing any boy has to go through is watching the strongest man they know wither, then die.
You don’t ever recover. But you do move on.
“He’s much more focused this year,” Freedom coach Tchecoy Blount said. “He has a lot to prove. Coming into his senior year, he has put on his shoulders high expectations.”
He’ll have to keep his job. There’s stiff competition from sophomore Taylor King.
And he needs to stop trying to be better than everyone, and instead be the best Jon Economou he can be, says Blount.
If he does that, he can be a star, he can be a Division I-A quarterback, he can be everything James wanted him to be.
He started his final season Monday at 6 a.m., in the front row at the Patriots’ team meeting.
He’s still a little angry, but he does feel a little better talking about it.
He still misses his dad, still cries himself to sleep every now and then, and still hurts.
But James would tell him to bear down, show off that right arm, and be a leader.
Jon has a dozen or so colleges looking at him, wondering what this big boy really has.
He needs to show them something. He needs to show everyone something.
“He has the opportunity,” Blount said. “Now, it’s up to him.”
He’ll start the season as the Quarterback.
Dad would like the sound of that.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org