|The Wittenberg defensive has been holding up its end of the bargain so far this season.
Wittenberg athletics photo by Blake Nelson
No team wants to wear a helmet sticker in memory of a fallen teammate.
No player wants to change jersey numbers so he can represent his lost brother.
Somehow, through the loss and the pain, teams have a way of banding together to play inspired football and honor the legacy left by a teammate who left this world far too soon.
We’ve seen it happen in recent years at Thomas More, Linfield, and Washington and Jefferson, among others. Persevering through tragedy, those teams triumphed.
It’s happening again this year, this time at Wittenberg and Lake Forest. Both the Tigers and Foresters are playing inspired football after losing teammates over the summer.
Wittenberg lost cornerback Miles Laboy in a June 27 car accident involving three other Tigers teammates. Lake Forest lost defensive end D.J. Baker, who died unexpectedly on June 1. Through the pain, the two teams have combined to open the 2016 season 9-2. The Tigers are undefeated and ranked 15th.
“What we went through this summer is something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” said Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham. “It’s kind of galvanized our football team. We’re young and inexperienced in a lot of ways. They’ve really stuck together and they’ve really become a closer football team because of it.”
Wittenberg is allowing just 8.8 points and 72.6 rushing yards per game. The Tigers held previously unbeaten DePauw to just 10 points in an impressive Week 6 victory.
“Our defense has been lights-out. To hold DePauw to 10 points, I mean their quarterback is hands down the offensive player of the year in our league,” said Fincham. “I can’t say enough about them. They keep finding stops.”
Laboy was in the mix to start at cornerback this season. Rashon Edwards, the team’s top corner, was the driver involved in the accident. He recovered enough physically and mentally to open the season as a starter at cornerback, but an ankle injury has kept him out of action the past two weeks. The Tigers have continued to play suffocating defense with a freshman and sophomore starting at cornerback.
“The upperclassmen do a great job. During practices, they encourage us, support us, making sure we’re working hard and doing what we’re supposed to do. At the end of the day, they’re there for us, too,” said freshman cornerback Corey Dieringer. “Everyone does their jobs, that’s what we focus on and preach during practice. I feel the pressure, but I try to not let it get to me. After a couple of drives, it just feels normal, like I’m part of the team and I’m supposed to be out there.”
The Tigers have honored Laboy with a helmet sticker this season. They have also honored his memory with their performance. With wins over Wabash and DePauw, the Tigers are in position to secure the NCAC championship. A win over undefeated Denison this week would pretty much secure the title.
|Austin Towsey and the rest of the Wittenberg Tigers remember Miles Laboy with an 8 sticker on their helmet.
Wittenberg athletics photo by Blake Nelson
|Lake Forest started its season with a missing-man formation, to remember D.J. Baker.|
“We just worked really hard. We had one goal in mind. We’ve got to win this conference outright,” said sophomore quarterback Jake Kennedy, who has led a balanced offensive attack which puts up 426.2 yards (196.8 rushing, 229.4 passing) and 30.6 points per game. “We’ve got to win it for Miles. We’ve got to keep going, one game after the next.”
The winning hasn’t been easy or pretty, but the Tigers have proven themselves to be mentally tough. They possess a fortitude that not every college football team has. Some of that is a result of young players having to step up into bigger roles. Part of it is how the team banded together following the accident in the summer.
“The thing that I would say about our club right now is I don’t know if we’re the best Wittenberg team I’ve had, but we’ve got a lot of grit to us,” said Fincham. “I don’t know if we’re a great team, but we’re a team with some grit.”
The Foresters are unlikely to advance to the playoffs, after losses to Monmouth at St. Norbert. But they realize that they are playing for something even greater this season.
“For many of us, it was the first time in our lives where someone close had unexpectedly passed away. The feeling was difficult to comprehend,” said senior captain and defensive end Brendan Power. “D.J. was a selfless individual that would have done anything for this team. We not only play for ourselves, we play to make him and his family proud.”
Teams that experience tragedy grieve differently. Lake Forest decided to include Baker in its 2016 online roster. Click on his name and you’ll find links to the news stories about his passing, as well as his career statistics.
“In watching our players move through the season, I have seen the way that they talk about D.J., and it is never in the past tense,” said Foresters coach Jim Catanzaro. “Trying to be there for each other became our focus. I think that the team really took to caring for each other as they individually dealt with the emotions.”
“In many ways it truly changed the identity of our program. I think that a number of our players made a conscious decision to honor D.J. by embracing the strengths that he brought to the program. D.J.’s commitment to fostering brotherhood, creating social interactions with his teammates, and making the family atmosphere paramount to anything else that we did had been evident in a number of our players.”
A different Foresters player dons Baker’s number 93 jersey each week. Game days take on greater significance.
“I think that the healing that continues to take place at games, and as we work with each other, continues to be the strength that a lot of our players lean on each other for,” said Catanzaro. “Seeing the 93 jersey on a different player each week truly helps keep DJ with us in spirit each week.”
Being part of a football team has helped these young men cope with the loss of a friend. Without the team, and without football, the healing would be more difficult. Seeing a helmet sticker or jersey every Saturday is a reminder of what was lost, but also motivation to make sure that Laboy’s and Baker’s memories live on through their teammates and the sport that they loved to play.
“We are all going through this together. There is always someone to talk to and I’m not sure what it would have been like to go through without my teammates,” said Power. “When times are tough, we are able to put things into a greater perspective. We know that the healing process is never going to end and that is perfectly fine. D.J. is a person that I am going to think of every day of my life. I know that I will be able to celebrate his life with 100-plus other people and that is special.”
|Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com|
Brendan Power, the Lake Forest defensive end, doesn’t remember a time when football was not part of his life. The senior captain enjoys Saturdays, but he most enjoys everything that goes on behind the scenes to make Saturdays special for him and his teammates.
I’m not really sure [when I fell in love with football]. Growing up, it was always Notre Dame on Saturdays and the Bears on Sunday. At the park, we played baseball all summer and football in the fall and winter. It is just something that was introduced to my life at such a young age.
Football is a special game. You work all year and practice every day of the week to play 10 games. Each Saturday is a chance to prove what you worked for. I love the blood and sweat it takes in the offseason. I love the part of the game that outsiders don’t see.
As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!
There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about D-III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!