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Teammate’s absence weighs heavily on hearts, minds of Seminole players

A memorial for Sophie Delott, who was killed in June while riding her bike home from work, is planned for Saturday.
Personal items of Sophie Delott, 17, remain in a locker at Seminole High School. Delott,  the football team's only female player, was struck and killed by an impaired driver while cycling across the Indian Rocks Causeway Bridge in June. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Personal items of Sophie Delott, 17, remain in a locker at Seminole High School. Delott, the football team's only female player, was struck and killed by an impaired driver while cycling across the Indian Rocks Causeway Bridge in June. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published Jul. 31, 2019
Updated Jul. 31, 2019

SEMINOLE — Sophie Delott stood in front of her Seminole High teammates at last year’s summer camp to explain why she played football. Delott said the sport gave her a purpose. The team made her feel at home.

“That was the moment Sophie really ingrained herself to the guys,” Warhawks coach Chris Miller said. “She was no longer the girl who joined the football team. She became part of the brotherhood.”

Seminole recently returned to Stetson University for its annual bonding session. Players again took turns saying what drives them to play.

But Delott’s absence was conspicuous.

Seminole coach Chris Miller is trying to retire the No. 22 jersey of Sophie Delott. (Photo courtesy of the Seminole High School Warhawks football team)
Seminole coach Chris Miller is trying to retire the No. 22 jersey of Sophie Delott. (Photo courtesy of the Seminole High School Warhawks football team)

Delott, 17, was struck and killed by an impaired driver last month while biking home from work on the Indian Rocks Causeway Bridge .

“It was extremely emotional,” Miller said of this year’s camp. “There was not a dry eye in the room. When the players spoke, all they wanted to talk about was Sophie.”

On Tuesday, the Warhawks officially started the season with their first practice. Delott’s locker remains intact. Her helmet, shoulder pads and No. 22 jersey still hang. Two pairs of cleats lay on the floor. The flowers placed in a vase the day after she died are now wilted.

“I try hard not to look at the locker,” said senior Austin Brinkley, one of Delott’s closest friends on the team. “When I do, I can still hear her voice, still hear her cracking jokes.”

Merric Grego’s locker is next to Delott’s. For the past two years, the two had plenty of conversations, mostly about football.

“She was such a good person,” Grego said. “She never complained about anything. It’s just hard to believe that she’s gone.”

Merric Grego, 16, laces up his cleats before attending practice. The locker (with jersey No. 22), at left, belonged to his teammate and friend, Sophie Delott. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Merric Grego, 16, laces up his cleats before attending practice. The locker (with jersey No. 22), at left, belonged to his teammate and friend, Sophie Delott. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Seminole has endured multiple tragedies involving athletes. Last year, former soccer standout Olivia Red was killed in a car crash in Pennsylvania. In 2009, former baseball player Nate Richardson and basketball player Keith MacCollom were among four students who died in a fiery accident not far from the school. In 1990, Steve Georgiadis died after developing heart-related complications following routine shoulder surgery.

“This is the first time I’ve ever lost a player,” Miller said. “It’s just gut-wrenching. The manner in which she was taken was just senseless. There was no reason for that to happen. Somebody made an incredibly dumb and selfish decision and she lost her life because of it.

“What makes it even more devastating is she was doing everything right. She was a good student. She was helping her mom pay bills. She was joining the Marines. She had so much potential and it was all cut short.”

By playing, Delott gained the respect of her teammates. She never sought attention for that decision — or any other.

When Delott enlisted in the Marines, she did not make any big announcement.

Miller did it for her.

A sign memorializing Sophie Delott, who had recently enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, hangs near the back door of the Seminole locker room. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
A sign memorializing Sophie Delott, who had recently enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, hangs near the back door of the Seminole locker room. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

The coach invited a local sergeant from the Marine Corps in the locker room during spring practice to tell the team. Everyone cheered.

“I know some dudes who are scared to play football,” Brinkley said. “For her to come out and go against everybody on the team just showed how fearless she was. She just had heart and I told her that every time I saw her.”

During drills, Delott would be the first in line. She stayed after practice to get better.

“Sophie was the only girl out here and she had the stones to do it,” said senior Steven Anderson, another of Delott’s close friends. “Even though she was a female, she was still our brother.”

Miller wants Delott’s memory to last. He plans to install plexiglass around her locker, and order patches for the jerseys and stickers for the helmets to honor her.

He also is seeking approval from the school’s administrators to retire Delott’s jersey.

A memorial of flowers remains at the site where Sophie Delott was killed. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
A memorial of flowers remains at the site where Sophie Delott was killed. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

After a month of mourning, Seminole will get some closure. A memorial for Delott is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Anona United Methodist Church in Largo.

“We’re trying to get ready for the season, but we’ve had this somber cloud hanging over us,” Miller said. “We tried talking about that at our Stetson camp, about handling those emotions. We all took it hard. But now we’ll be able to say our goodbyes.

“The hurt never goes away. But this does give us a tremendous sense of unity and something to play for to honor her courage and sacrifice. Hopefully, they can use that bond and continue to lean on each other.”

To drive that point home, Miller placed a sign by the door leading to the field. It has the date of their annual team bonding session (7/22) along with one word: brotherhood.

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.