Paul Sacco was expecting a relaxing day at the Ventnor beach with his wife, Peggy, on Saturday.
But the moment he sat down, the St. Joseph High School football coach got a phone call from a former assistant, who told him that four Mainland Regional High School football players had died and four others had been hurt in a car crash on the Garden State Parkway.
Sacco and his wife immediately went home.
"It was such a flashback," he said Saturday night. "It felt like someone punched me in the stomach. The same with my wife."
Sacco knows better than most what Mainland coach Bob Coffey must be going through today. On Oct. 31, 2003, St. Joe senior Mark Bresani left a team gathering at the Sacco home in Hammonton the night before a game, and was killed in an accident on the Atlantic City Expressway on his way home to Winslow Township.
"Just going through it a few years ago, it's still in our minds," Sacco said. "There is not a day that goes by I don't think of Mark Bresani."
Eight years after Bresani's death, the St. Joe's football team still has his jersey hanging in its fieldhouse and his photo in the weight room. At the end of every season, two awards are given in Bresani's honor. Football held the Wildcats together that year, but it was a difficult time for all in the St. Joseph community.
Sacco remembers the Wildcats' first game after the Friday-night tragedy. They played on a Monday afternoon, after postponing the Saturday game. Sacco looked out and saw Coffey and his Mainland team lined up along the field in a show of support for the Wildcats, a Cape-Atlantic League rival.
"It's a tough battle," Sacco said. "No one ever prepares you for this. There is no school or clinic. It just wails you. But I know Bob Coffey and he will get them going."
The four boys killed in Saturday's accident were Edgar Bozzi, 17, of Somers Point; Dean Khoury, of Linwood; and Casey Brenner, and Nick Conner, both of Northfield. The other players' ages were not available Saturday night.
News of the tragedy spread throughout the local sporting community, reaching out of state. In Clifton Park, N.Y., at the Babe Ruth baseball World Series for 13-year-olds, Atlantic Shore - a team whose players mostly come from Somers Point, Linwood and Northfield, learned of the accident after an 8-4 loss to a California team.
Some of the eight Mainland players involved in the car accident had played for the Atlantic Shore baseball team in recent years, so they knew some of the All-Stars currently at the World Series.
"It's very difficult for us right now. The players have never experienced anything like this before," Mike Gill, Atlantic Shore's manager, said by telephone from New York. "It's very hard to put into words how they are taking this right now. Our motto is to try and go out and do our best for all those kids from Mainland."
The Mainland Mustangs football team went 7-3 on the field last season. The team is expected to be a contender in the Cape-Atlantic League this fall.
The Mustangs won the CAL title in 2003, 2007 and 2008. They also won the South Jersey Group IV state championship in 2008.
Brent Caprio, who plays football at The College of William and Mary, was the quarterback of that 2008 team and heard Saturday's tragic news shortly after the accident. About 2:30 p.m., he wrote on his Facebook wall: "RIP to the mainland football players we lost today ... gone but not forgotten."
Mainland begins its season Sept. 9 against Hammonton. The Mainland and St. Joe football teams were scheduled to hold a scrimmage at 10 a.m. Monday in Linwood. That game has been canceled.
Press correspondent Nyssa Dougherty contributed to this report.
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