TAMPA — Less than an hour before kickoff, Middleton High football players walked, single file, into Abe Brown Stadium for their first home game.
Within eyesight was the practice field where tragedy struck nearly three months earlier.
Hezekiah B. Walters, an incoming freshman, collapsed during conditioning drills in June and died shortly thereafter. The official cause of death has yet to be determined.
Walters never became a student. He was on the football team for just a few weeks. But he had already made an impact.
“Hezekiah had already done so much at such a young age to be a positive role model, to help others,” said Kim Colston, president of Middleton’s athletic booster club.
From an early age, Walters devoted much of his time to Men of Vision, a 175-member organization of middle and high school students — many from at-risk neighborhoods — who strive to help the community, achieve academically and lead productive lives.
About seven or eight football teammates were part of that group. Nearly the entire team attended the wake or the funeral. They all wanted to do something to honor Walters.
Many players wore white T-shirts handed out at the funeral underneath their jerseys and shoulder pads Monday. They hung one of the shirts across the back of a sideline bench.
Principal Tiatasha Brown listened to the students and players. She coordinated with Colston on a way to pay homage to Walters before the home opener.
Fans were asked to wear all white. After the national anthem, there was a moment of silence, then cheerleaders released 14 white balloons.
“The 14 was meaningful,” Colston said. “They represented each precious year he was with us.”
Colston, whose son James is a sophomore lineman, got to know Walters over the summer.
“Hezekiah didn’t live near the school,” Colston said. “He had a lot of options to go elsewhere. But he wanted to be here. He wanted to be a part of the school’s legacy. You don’t see that kind of pride that often in someone so young.”
Colston took her son to the wake rather than the funeral.
“That’s a lot to put on a young man, but we wanted to still be there to pay our respects,” she said.
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More than a month ago, former Plant High and USC standout Mike Williams left a high school head coaching job in California to come home because he was so impacted by Walters’ death.
Williams ended up becoming the Tigers coach. It was a rough start. For the first week of practice, the players were stuck in the cafeteria and classrooms filling out paperwork so they could be cleared. Williams canceled the preseason game against Clearwater because he was unsure if he would have enough guys ready to play.
The emotion of losing a teammate was a powerful motivator. Middleton won its opener against Alonso, 12-7.
Williams has shielded the players from answering difficult questions. They have to get permission from their coach to talk about Walters publicly.
For Williams, it has been a careful balance. He wants Walters to be remembered, but does not want the team to be consumed with grief. It was hard not to be Monday night.
The Tigers played hard. The defense was relentless and opportunistic. The offense was efficient. But Sickles won 20-18.
On the sideline, players kept half of the balloons that were supposed to be released. They tied them to the bench with the Walters T-shirt.
“It’s been pretty remarkable the way the team and the coaches have been able to pull together under such difficult circumstances,” Brown said. “I’m extremely proud of them.”