LINWOOD - "I need two ends. I need two tight ends!"
A seemingly simple command, it had worried Mainland Regional High
School football coach Bob Coffey long before he called out to his team Tuesday morning during the first practice since a weekend car crash killed four players and injured four more.
Casey Brenner, a senior at Mainland, would have played tight end for the Mustangs this fall. But he and teammates Edgar Bozzi, Dean Khoury and Nick Conner died after Brenner rolled his SUV just before noon Saturday near milepost 37.6 on the southbound side of the Garden State Parkway.
Investigators haven't determined the speed of the vehicle, but believe Brenner lost control when he tried to avoid slamming into congested traffic he came upon suddenly after passing over a crest in the road.
Brenner, 17, and Conner, 16, both of Northfield, were wearing their seatbelts. So was survivor Kyle Beattie, 16, of Northfield. At least four others were not; reports conflict on whether surviving passenger Kenneth Randall, 15, of Linwood, fastened his.
"We talked as a staff (on Monday) about how we have to move kids into their spots," Coffey said. "That's a tough thing to ask."
Although school officials have canceled scrimmages for boys football and girls tennis, soccer and field hockey, most athletes returned to practice Tuesday. They included quarterback Tom Bradway, a 17-year-old junior from Linwood who called Brenner one of his best friends.
"There's a special significance to this practice, obviously - it's our first without them," Bradway said. "Being in the locker room was certainly different with four personalities gone that we loved so much."
And the reminders kept coming, despite attempts to make the two-hour session as normal as possible.
They started immediately, with Coffey checking attendance in a way he hoped would avoid highlighting their absence.
"It took me forever to take roll today, because I was trying to switch it up because if you go in sequence, it's very obvious," Coffey said. "(Yesterday), I'm thinking, 'I can't cross them off, but I can't say their name. I have to make sure I mix it up - or maybe I just shouldn't take roll for a while.' These are some of things you'd just have never thought of, that you're not prepared for."
During water breaks throughout practice, Brenner's brother Ryan, a junior, separated himself from the rest of the team, silently sipping a sports drink at a small -but distinct -distance from the other players.
Randall and surviving passenger Alex DeNafo, 16, of Northfield, didn't fully suit up Tuesday, but instead stayed on the sidelines in shorts and T-shirts. Injuries kept Beattie and Jake Smith, 17, of Linwood, at their homes.
The Mustangs open the season on Friday, Sept. 9 at home against traditional Cape-Atlantic League power Hammonton, and Coffey said that the team will continue to practice all week.
Before heading into the weight room, Bradway described the practice as "business as usual with a lot of emotions."
"Football is the only normal thing we have right now as a team," he said "It's like our sanctuary."
Coffey expected as much.
"Once they get here, they always know what to expect," he said.
The last time they stepped off the field, they were a couple hours away from a terrible shock. Players intended to meet Saturday for a post-practice brunch at Old Country Buffet in Mays Landing. Eight of them never made it.
"These boys went to practice and did not come home. It's like being hit in the side of the head and not knowing what to do," said Mindy Shemtov, executive director and co-founder of the Alcove Center for Grieving Children and Families. "If somebody has cancer and they're dying, if you will, slowly, it's a different kind of reaction."
The scale of the loss and national media attention also complicate things in this case, she said.
"There are people always asking questions. It's almost like it's not personal," she said. "And this is a community tragedy, so wherever you turn, there are going to be people who are grieving in different ways."
Anger, sadness, crying, exhaustion, insomnia, bad grades, perfectionism, increased risk-taking, loss of appetite, lack of concentration, withdrawal from social and extracurricular activities all are common manifestations of grief. Although specifics depend on the individual, suppressing emotions is universally counterproductive, Shemtov said.
Duration also varies, but professional help might be advisable if behavioral shifts caused by grief last longer than six months or a year or two, depending on the severity of the change, Shemtov said.
In the meantime, "parents, school personnel, adults in our community need to open their ears, open their hearts," she said.
Contact Emily Previti:
Alcove Center for Grieving Children and Families. Office: 609-484-1133, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Free group therapy sessions each evening at the Alcove, 950 Tilton Road, Suite 108 New Road, Northfield. www.thealcovecenter.org.
AtlantiCare Behavioral Health, multiple locations for child, adolescent and adult outpatient services. Appointments: 609-646-9159. www.atlanticare.org.