Written by SportsDayDFW.com
Players forced to deal with the unthinkable: death of a teammate
As the top prospect on the Carrollton Newman Smith football team, Jaquis Jones already was being pursued by recruiters from New Mexico State, Nevada and Utah State.
So talented was the 6-foot, 248-pound nose guard, the Newman Smith coaching staff decided to change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense this fall.
“Jaquis,” explained Newman Smith coach Paul Ressa, “demanded a double-team.”
Jones was a leader in the Trojans’ locker room, too, selected as a captain for the coming season by a unanimous vote of teammates.
But one day after final exams this spring, the unthinkable happened. At an end-of-school party on Lake Lewisville, Jones jumped into the water and never resurfaced. By the time his body was located, it was too late. Jaquis Jones, who had so much going for him, was dead at 17.
“Put it this way,” said Ressa last week as he prepared for the start of fall workouts without his star. “Jaquis Jones was Newman Smith football. He was fun and full of life, and it spread to all those around him.”
Among the ways the Trojans will remember Jones this fall:
There will be a moment of silence in his honor before all Newman Smith games.
His jersey number 51 will eventually be retired. But each week this season, coaches will choose a defensive player to wear No. 51. Part of that honor includes serving as a game captain.
Since pink was his favorite color, players will wear pink sweatbands inscribed with “51 Rest in Peace.”
There was a tribute ceremony for Jones shortly after his death. Ressa has consulted with experts on grief so that his players can better cope with their loss.
Newman Smith is among the many Class 5A and 4A schools that opted for spring workouts and thus begin fall football practice Monday.
If the summer wasn’t difficult enough for the Newman Smith football program, the Trojans will also be without starting safety Kalen Berry, who underwent cancer surgery last week.
“It’s going to be hard,” said senior center David Vazquez, “but we’re more determined to do it this year, for them.”
Grief at Birdville
It has been traumatic for four more area high schools that in the last 11 months have had to deal with tragedies involving football players.
In June, Birdville cornerback Chance Clifton and a female classmate were killed when the wheels of a tractor-trailer broke off and crashed into their vehicle while they were traveling in Oklahoma.
Forty previous seasons as a coach did not prepare Birdville coach Jim Skinner for the anguish.
“It makes me really depressed to think about it,” said Skinner, who met with his players to console them soon after the accident. “I’m a parent first and a coach second. It’s just tough.”
Another member of the Birdville football program, offensive lineman Colby Wade, suffered a head injury in the accident that will sideline him this season.
Birdville wide receiver Sam Northey remembers Clifton, a friend since the third grade, as someone with a smile on his face and the ability to make people laugh.
“I’ve tried, but I don’t even want to think what it will be like without him,” Northey said.
Birdville, coming off a school-best 13-win season, is considering ways to honor the memory of Clifton.
“Whatever we do,” said Skinner, “we’ll talk it over with his parents first.”
Euless Trinity reeling
The latest to be touched by tragedy is Euless Trinity. Two former football players, Polo Manukainiu and Gaius Vaenuku, died in a highway accident last month in New Mexico.
Also killed was 13-year-old Andrew Uhatafe.
Manukainiu, a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M, and Vaenuku, a freshman at Utah, were remembered by Trinity teammate Calon Bibbs for their dedication: “No matter what game, no matter what the score was, no matter how much time was left, each snap of the ball they came at you with everything they had, and it was either stop them or get out of the way.”
Sam Tevi, a Utah signee, said he idolized the two players.
“They were the ones I looked up to on the field,” said Tevi. “Now that they’re gone it’s just hard for me. They left a lot behind, a big legacy.”
Coppell honors No. 21
The retired No. 21 worn by Jacob Logan is the first thing Coppell players see when they enter their locker room and the last thing they see on the ramp before they enter the field.
Logan, a two-way starting senior, died at Possum Kingdom Lake during a weekend getaway in October 2012.
“Jacob is everywhere,” said Coppell coach Joe McBride. “His picture is in our meeting room. His number is above the door that we walk out of every day.”
The healing is ongoing.
“We’re still trying to get over it,” McBride said. “We still shake our heads and wonder if it really happened. It remains extremely fresh in our minds and a lot of the kids on this year’s team were on the team last year.”
Another way Coppell chose to remember Logan was by bestowing in his name a postseason award for the player who best exemplified his spirit, integrity and dedication.
Rowlett players will wear the initials of Austin Gaffney on their helmets, first-year coach Doug Stephens said. Gaffney, a defensive back, died in a drowning accident at Holly Lake last September.
“This year’s seniors would have been Austin’s graduating class and we wanted to make a memorial to him,” said Stephens.
A scholarship in Gaffney’s name has been established by the Rowlett football booster club.
The alarming number of accidental deaths in a short period of time illustrate that 15- to 18-year-olds are not bulletproof, as they sometimes seem to believe, said Newman Smith’s Ressa.
“Talk to them and they’ll say ‘No way, not me.’ But the lesson has to be ‘take nothing for granted.’”
Staff writer David Just contributed to this story.