06/05/06 — Opinion - Playing through tragedy

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Opinion - Playing through tragedy

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on June 5, 2006 2:25 PM

My junior year of high school is one I will never forget.

There were many highlights.

I had my license and felt like the king of world even though I drove an '84 Park Avenue, affectionately named "the hooptie."

I went on a cross-country, summer bus trip with a great group of friends through Young Life to Colorado.

Last but not least, my high school won the first of its four state football championships that year. I didn't play, but was a proud member of the shirtless, painted-up Crest Crazies.

I could probably fill an entire column with our hijinx, but let's just say we were passionate about our football and the team and fans loved us for it. So much so, the team didn't want to run out on the field at Kenan Stadium on Championship Saturday unless we were running out behind them -- like we did all of that undefeated season. Maybe they were just superstitious, but it didn't make us feel any less proud.

But the tragic death of John Paul Setliff, a Charles B. Aycock senior and football player, took me back to a more difficult aspect of 1994.

In the midst of the championship run, Donnie Lewis, a senior starting running back, died in a car accident. On top of being a strong runner between the tackles, Donnie was the jokester that every locker room needs. He was everyone's best friend, even if you didn't know him.

But suddenly he was gone.

The cause of Lewis' and Setliff's death were clearly different, but the emotions in dealing with the loss were likely similar.

As in all tragedies, disbelief, shock, anger and grief grip everyone close to the situation.

But as we mourned, it became apparent that as a school and community the only way to get through it was to celebrate Donnie's life and how he touched us.

We figured that's how he would have wanted it.

His No. 30 was everywhere ... on posters, on sidewalks, on our backs. Wearing patches in his honor, the team met, not at midfield, but at the 30-yard line after every game.

Beginning with our home game against Watauga, the same day as his funeral, the Crazies did all of our post-touchdown push-ups beside the 30-yard line. More than a decade later, Crest players still touch a monument in Donnie's honor as they run on the field. In all likelihood, they probably always will.

As I walked to do interviews with the Aycock softball team on Wednesday, I noticed the pastel-colored No. 67s, Setliff's football jersey number, on the sidewalk between the Falcons' gymnasium and the parking lot.

I admit, my eyes watered up when I saw "We Love You JPS" and "God's Favorite Fooball Player" along that same sidewalk. Mainly, because I feel for that young man's family and friends, but partly because it took me back to a familiar feeling I had 12 years ago.

Sure, it was my job to cover the softball team over the weekend at the final four, but I also couldn't help but feel a sense of pride in the team I was covering.

This was a team that had to practice and prepare for some of the biggest games of their lives, during one of, if not the most, difficult weeks of their lives. That is no easy task, for anyone of any age.

The same day they took the field against Harnett Central on Friday, several of the players had earlier attended Setliff's graveside ceremony. On Saturday against Southwestern Randolph, the players wore ribbons in their hair with the letters, "RIP JSP" in his honor.

Their coach, David West, probably said it best, "Considering all that has happened, this is a team that has come a long way in a very short amount of time this week."

A pair of senior softball players, Chelsey Byers and Staci Barnes, were disappointed their careers had come to a conclusion, but offered a mature sense of perspective after Saturday's game.

"We wanted to come up here and win it for John Paul, because he was supposed to be here," Barnes said.

"This week was all about trying to get people focused on softball," Byers said. "I was especially close to John Paul, so it was really hard to focus on coming here. But eventually we got it together.

"We just knew John Paul would want us to have fun."

As a new week begins, Aycock's students and faculty will be busy with final exams. Then, Friday's graduation, which promises to be another emotional evening in Pikeville. Understandably, tears will flow.

I may not have known him, but I'm almost certain John Paul would also want to see some smiles and laughs in his honor among his family, friends and classmates.