Playing with 12 men has yet to cause Wilson a penalty this football season.
One of them might not physically take the field with the Warriors, but he’s still there with them, playing a huge role.
“We’re definitely playing with 12 players,” senior Tre Burris said. “Kevin is always out there with us.”
He’s talking about his friend Kevin Hughes, a teammate since their Pee Wee days who would have been a senior two-way starter for Wilson this season.
On Feb. 9 around 6 a.m., Hughes’ 1997 Toyota Four-Runner ran off the road heading south on Lauderdale County 61, not far from his home, and hit a tree. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the one-car accident.
Word spread quickly on campus.
“It was second period, and I walked out to go get a snack,” Burris said. “I saw a lot of football players huddled up. They said they thought Kevin had been in a wreck. They didn’t know what had happened, but they weren’t sure if it was Kevin because they couldn’t identify the body. We just couldn’t believe what was going on.”
The loss stung.
Burris played next to Hughes on the line. Senior Clayton Strait, a defensive back and wide receiver, had been friends with Hughes since elementary school.
“He was the kind of guy everybody liked,” Strait said. “He was a leader on the team and he was always pushing us to be better.
“It was really tough. We pretty much came together as a whole. We’ll stick together and take up for each other through anything.”
To honor Hughes, the senior class raised money to place a large rock beyond the south end zone on the way to the field house. Plans are to have a tribute engraved on it.
Next to it, junior Cody Crouch built a wooden cross-like structure with Hughes’ name and number painted on it.
Before every game, the team places Hughes’ helmet on top and hangs his jersey on the front of it. They stay there until his teammates gather around after the game, remove them together and place them back in Hughes’ locker.
Every time the Warriors come on or off the field, they touch the rock.
For away games, they bring Hughes’ helmet and jersey with them and hang it on the fence behind their bench.
“Other than him not being on the field, it’s just like he’s been here,” said first-year Warriors coach Scott Brown, who was hired a week before Hughes’ car wreck. “Everywhere we’ve been, he’s been there with us.”
While the Warriors have missed their teammate, he has played an important role this season, they said.
“He pushes us,” Burris said. “If we ever start slacking, we say, ‘Hey, Kevin would have gotten after us.’ If we were ever down in the fourth quarter, he was getting after us. He never quit. We’re just trying to carry that on.”
Added Crouch, “Everything we’ve done has had something to do with him. This whole season is dedicated to him.”
And there may be even more of it yet. Despite dropping their last two games, the Warriors (4-4, 3-3 Class 4A, Region 8) can still make the playoffs for the first time since 2006 with an upset of region champion, 10th-ranked Brooks (7-1, 6-0) tonight at home.
“I think Kevin has been happy, smiling down at us until these last two weeks,” Strait said. “We’ve kind of let him down there, but it isn’t over yet. We’ve got a lot to play for.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or email@example.com. Follow @bappster on Twitter.