LINWOOD - Football camaraderie and tradition. That was what the Mainland Regional High School team was looking forward to on Saturday.
Instead, it became a tragic morning when the driver of an SUV carrying eight members of the team lost control of the vehicle, which overturned several times near exit 38A southbound on the Garden State Parkway, said Sgt. Julian Castellanos, spokesman for the State Police. The accident happened about 11:45 a.m.
Each August, after the last practice of the summer, a caravan of coaches and players from Mainland's varsity and junior varsity football teams drive to Old Country Buffet in Mays Landing for breakfast.
"We pretty much sit together and hang out - eat, talk and laugh," said former football player and Mainland graduate Michael Bozzi, of Somers Point. "We go out as a team, as a family, and it's kind of a bonding thing before the season gets off."
This year, eight players - including Bozzi's brother, Edgar - got into a 2002 Ford Explorer to participate in the tradition. They never got to the restaurant. Killed were Edgar Bozzi, 16, of Somers Point; Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield; Dean Khoury, 15, of Linwood; and Nick Conner, 16, of Northfield.
Castellanos said Sunday that Brenner was driving the SUV at the time of the crash.
Three of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene. The fourth victim died at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, in Atlantic City. Bozzi and Khoury were thrown from the vehicle, Castellanos said.
Four other individuals were injured in the crash. When The Press contacted AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, to check on the conditions of Alex DeNafo, 16, of Northfield, Jacob Smith, 17, of Linwood, Kyle Beattie, 16, of Northfield, and Kenneth Randall, 15, of Linwood, they were told that their conditions would not be released at the request of the boys' families.
As news of the accident spread Saturday, community members gathered at local restaurants, the school and at the homes of Mainland football coach Bob Coffey and the deceased.
Ireland Avenue, where Coffey resides, was closed to vehicular traffic by Linwood police. People who visited Coffey's home embraced each other outside and wiped silent tears away from their cheeks.
Coffey could not be reached for comment.
Michael Bozzi, who spoke to reporters in a phone interview, said football was his brother's life, and had been particularly so this summer.
"Your football team is your family during the summer," he said. "You see them more than you see your family. Football meant the world to him."
A member of the high school track team, Edgar was the "fastest kid in Mainland" and could have continued the sport in college, Michael Bozzi said.
Edgar's father, Frankie Bozzi, said his son had attended practice twice a day every day since June and had been looking forward to his senior year.
In addition to football practice, he said, his son had served as a lifeguard at Gillian's Island Water Park in Ocean City.
Edgar had maintained a 4.16 grade-point average through junior year and had already been picking colleges, he said.
"I've always taught him to be a winner, you have to hang out with winners," Frankie Bozzi said. "He didn't drink or use drugs; and he didn't hang out with anyone or talk to anyone that did."
Frankie Bozzi said Edgar was outgoing, but always polite. "Not one disrespectful word ever came out of his mouth," he said.
Michael Bozzi described his brother as a "happy kid" who was always laughing.
Frankie Bozzi, who first heard of his son's death at 3 p.m. Saturday, said he didn't know what to do to comfort his family, other than make funeral arrangements.
"I can't comfort (my wife); I can't do anything," he added. "There's not enough comforting in the world."
Others expressed their grief and extended their sympathies to the families.
Lisa Marinelli, a bartender at Ventura's Offshore Cafe in Northfield, said patrons and staff were heartbroken upon hearing the news Saturday afternoon. The Brenners have been regular customers at the restaurant, she said.
"To have something like that happen to them is unbelievable," she said.
Others have showed support through online forums, including a sympathy page created for the players on the social networking site Facebook. By 10:30 p.m. more than 7,500 people had signed up.
Assistant coach Rich Koeppel declined to comment on the accident, but said counselors will be available to students at the high school tonight starting at 5 p.m. A candlelight vigil will follow at sunset, he said.
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