LINWOOD — Ted Khoury came to Mainland Regional High School to cheer Friday night.
“If a tear comes,” he said, “it was meant to.”
Khoury’s son, Dean, was one of four Mainland Regional football players to die in a car crash on Aug. 20. The Mustangs played their first game since the tragedy, opening their season against Hammonton before a crowd that filled the Mainland bleachers.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Khoury said. “I can’t let the sadness overtake how great everyone here is.”
Four Mainland players — Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield; Edgar Bozzi, 17, of Somers Point; Dean Khoury, 15, of Linwood; and Nicholas Conner, 16, of Northfield — died when the SUV they were in overturned near exit 38A southbound of the Garden State Parkway. Four other players in the car were injured but all were released from the hospital within a day or two of the accident.
Hammonton won Friday’s game 23-7, but the final score really didn’t matter. What was important was the Mustangs were back on the field.
“The main thing we’ve been talking about is normalcy,” Mainland junior quarterback Tom Bradway said. “This was, to a certain degree, normal for us. It feels good to be back in the spot where you’re happiest. When you go home, it’s rough. Not enough time has passed yet.”
Remembrances of the players were everywhere Friday.
Fans and families of the victims milled about during a barbecue before the contest. The boys’ jersey numbers were stenciled in a horseshoe at midfield. Fans wore T-shirts with the players’ names and the words, “Never Forget.”
The Mainland players wore black socks in memory of their teammates. As part of the ceremony, the school unveiled a mural painted by Mainland art teacher Steve Tullio. The picture, which hangs in front of the press box, depicts Mustang horses running. The boys’ names are written on the horses.
The crowd gave the victims’ families a standing ovation.
John Brenner, Casey’s dad, had coached many of the Mainland players since they were young children.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Brenner said. “The support from the community, the police, the fire, the media, the schools, the local merchants donating food. It’s absolutely uplifting. It’s keeping us afloat right now.”
Still, Brenner was worried about what Friday’s ceremony would feel like.
“I thought this might be hurtful,” he said. “But I feel really good now. I have good vibes about this. I’m glad everybody came together. We’re going to pack the stands like it’s a playoff game.”
The Hammonton players gave the Mainland players high fives as the Mustangs took the field. Hammonton brought flowers for the victims’ families.
“It’s a tribute to the whole community, (Mainland) coach (Bob) Coffey and the players that they even played the game,” Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said. “I think that’s the best healing you could probably do, get back after things.”
Khoury said he and Dean had been looking forward to the start of this season since last year’s final game.
“It’s all about the community right now,” Khoury said. “You have to enjoy yourself here. It has the sad undertones, but it’s such a great event. We’ve come together and stayed together for another day.”
Ryan Brenner, Casey’s brother, was one of Mainland’s captains. The student section chanted “Ryan Brenner, Ryan Brenner” when he ran on the field for a play.
The game was a hard-hitting contest. Chris Kaczmarski scored Mainland’s only touchdown on a 38-yard run in the second quarter. He pointed to the sky as he crossed the goal line.
Coffey said he wasn’t surprised by the community’s support.
“I’m from here,” he said. “I love this community. This is something I’ll never forget.”
Coffey said the healing process for the team is a journey. The same can be said for everyone involved in the tragedy.
“Right now it’s OK,” Khoury said. “I can’t promise you that some cold morning in February it won’t be OK. But for right now it’s OK.”
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