Mainland football presses on amid tragedy

Mainland Regional (Linwood, N.J.) football coach Bob Coffey gives his players instructions during an October practice. The Mustangs lost four of their teammates in a tragic preseason car accident. Steve Boyle/ESPNHS

This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine.

At a time when the Mainland Regional (Linwood, N.J.) community was grasping for a sense of normalcy, there was no escaping the fact that its world was off kilter.

A rare earthquake rattled the East Coast. Floodwaters engulfed the area as Hurricane Irene blew through town. But perhaps nothing sent that message more clearly than the four funerals of four teenage boys that took place in a surreal 10-day span.

On Aug. 20, as eight Mainland football players headed to a post-practice meal, the SUV they were riding in went out of control and flipped several times on the Garden State Parkway. Four players — Casey Brenner, Edgar Bozzi, Nicholas Conner and Dean Khoury — died in the crash.

“We had all of those things going on around us, but our players, coaches and school had four brothers to bury,” Mainland coach Bob Coffey said. “It was one of the hardest moments of my entire life. I could live 10 lifetimes and probably never experience a tragedy like that.”

In times like these, sports are often used as a refuge. But for a tight-knit community like Linwood, where Friday night football is king, it wasn’t always so easy.

On game day, the players used black socks and helmets with decals to honor their fallen teammates. And even though competitive juices churned during the game, the Mustangs’ opponents made a point to show their support. In the opener, Hammonton (Hammonton, N.J.) lined up to high-five the Mustangs as they ran onto the field. Meanwhile, each team in the Cape Atlantic League has worn commemorative decals on its helmets.

Initially, on-field success was hard to come by for the six-time state champion Mustangs, who started 0-2 before beating Ocean City (Ocean City, N.J.) on Sept. 23. And after holding a moment of silence before their first two games, the players found the pain too upsetting to continue the well-intentioned act. Still, the Mustangs pressed on and will close out their season Thursday in a Thanksgiving matchup against Egg Harbor Township (Egg Harbor Township, N.J.).

“It’s a roller coaster of emotions,” says Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley, whose first week on the job was the same week as the accident. “You remember some positives, but there’s also some anger. Why did this happen to young guys in the prime of their life? But the community and players have really rallied together.”

Before practice, when Coffey calls the roll, he still mentions the names “Bozzi,” “Brenner,” “Conner,” and “Khoury,” to which the players respond with a resounding “Here!” On Thursdays, the Mustangs’ weekly pasta dinner is attended by the victims’ parents, giving the players a welcome connection to their brothers while reassuring them that their parents’ hearts remain strong.

Unfortunately, no sign of camaraderie is powerful enough to bring their teammates back. But with every tribute and display of resilience, the spiritual presence of their fallen friends pushes the community a bit closer to that often elusive feeling: normalcy.

“On Bozzi’s birthday [Oct. 5], our players started something cool while we were running sprints. They said, ‘Let’s run these for Bozzi,’” Coffey recalls. “I thought it was great because they ran harder than they usually would; they ran with passion. It was a real good way to put a positive twist on a tragic event.

“Things like that show the character of these players and the incredible strength of our community.”

Brandon Parker covers New Jersey for ESPNHS magazine and ESPNHIGHSCHOOL.com. Follow him on Twitter @brandoncparker or email him at brandon.c.parker@espn.com.