KENNETH CITY — Northeast High sophomore Joseph Abbott sat along the Vikings sideline during pregame watching the football team warm up.
He’s not on the team, basketball being his sport, but he came along to feel a little closer to his fallen friend, Northeast senior Jacquez Welch.
He sported a T-shirt that said “Quez” on the front with a stylized heart wrapped around the No. 4. On the back, a Bob Marley quote seemingly full of more wisdom than his years can comprehend.
You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.
But maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe he can handle it. His face? Somber. His words? Quiet, but determined.
Does he feel like he has to be strong?
“Of course,” said Joseph, who grew up with Jacquez and was looking forward to him coming out for basketball. “In anything you do in life, you have to be strong. It’s life. Everybody is going to have that moment in life.
“His mom is being a 100 percent strong woman. If she can be strong, I can be strong, too.”
Moments later, he greeted Jacquez Welch’s mother, Marcia Nelson, as she entered through the gates. She hugged him and he hugged her. Either the teen was leaning on the adult or the adult was leaning on the teen. Maybe a little of both.
For some grieving mothers, attending the game may have proven difficult. After all, Jacquez collapsed on the field at Northeast a week ago and never recovered. Nelson, however, never questioned where she would be Friday night.
“I’m attending the rest of the season and more after that,” Nelson told me Thursday. “Those boys have become like my sons. They all call me mom anyway. Football was my sport. That was something I taught Jacquez until he got into little league and we went from there. It’s been straight football.
“I definitely will be at every game.”
Seemingly everyone chose to attend the game, to see two of the district’s best teams, to pay tribute to Jacquez, to show support to his family. You could see only a few empty seats on the Northeast side and some stood along the rails, almost all wearing red, Northeast’s school color.
As both teams gathered at midfield, arm in arm, Dixie Hollins coach Dale Caparaso told the Northeast players that after the game, they would have a family on the other side.
The Rebels reflected their love by also wearing red even though their colors have long been blue and white. Some wore T-shirts that said “DHHS ♥ NEHI." Some wore Bucs or New England Patriots shirts. Surely, Tom Brady would approve. One guy’s red shirt said, “Make America Great Again.” On this night, we waived the rules about partisanship for any red T-shirt.
But we can’t waive the rules of life. We can’t shield these kids from the fact they’re not promised tomorrow. Oh, we want to. Desperately. They should be worried about Instagram posts and test grades and what to wear to the Homecoming dance, not being strong, wondering when God will call them home or if they will die young.
In our sternest voice, we tell kids they aren’t invincible, that life has consequences. When we look back on our own teen years, however, we thrived on the belief life couldn’t conquer us. We reveled in worry-free days. We rooted our strength not in life lessons but in naivete. That’s what being a teen should be about. Maybe.
It may never be that way for Jacquez Welch’s friends, for an entire Pinellas County high school community shaken by the death of unanimously great kid who was taken from this earth by something called arteriovenous malformation. But maybe, it shouldn’t be that way.
Maybe they need to learn. Dunedin High coach Mitch Disney came to the game, not to scout Northeast, who he plays next week, but to lend support to the coaches he once worked with on the Vikings sideline. Disney said Jacquez’s death serves as a teachable moment. On Friday, he had his players write down what they would want people to say about them. He asked if people will say great things about them like they genuinely say about a Jacquez, a hard worker, a great kid, a fun guy.
In the end, maybe Jacquez’s spirit will prove to be invincible in how it inspires others. Maybe it’s good that these kids have to tap into a power within that’s yet to be fully nurtured. I just wish that invincible spirit didn’t have to rise from the death of a young man who from all accounts had already found his inner strength.
Contact Ernest Hooper at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @hoop4you