MERRILLVILLE | Football is a game that teaches young men resilience, strength and perseverance.
By rule, most plays only end when someone is knocked to the ground.
In the moment between the knockdown and the rising, growth occurs.
Everyone in Demaree Stadium grew Friday night.
Many wept as well.
The death of 17-year-old football player Jake West slightly more than 48 hours before Friday’s kickoff put the community of LaPorte, but also the prep football community at large, in unbearable mourning.
LaPorte fans filled two buses and multiple cars in a caravan to Merrillville for an afterthought game that left many tearful and speechless. Innumerable tributes to West dotted both sidelines, as well as sidelines in other communities.
“I’ve been crying for the last 10 minutes,” LaPorte coach Bob Schellinger said after the game.
“Obviously it was tough, it was real tough. It’s been a tough 48 hours for us, for everybody, the school, the community.
“I think you see our kids up there, our student body, they’re not leaving. It was really tough. Jake was awesome. These kids went through something this week that most adults haven’t gone through, watching a friend pass away right in front of them. The way that they have handled it is just tremendous.”
The players soldiered on like football players are wont to do. The result -- Merrillville 34, LaPorte 13 -- was a footnote.
No one could blame the already underwhelming Slicers for being emotionally spent. No one could fault the Pirates for winning big.
Showing respect while striving for a victory, Times No. 2 Merrillville ran to a 27-0 halftime lead and beat the visiting and emotionally drained Slicers in the homecoming game for the Pirates.
“I’m really proud of our guys, and I’m really proud of the LaPorte guys; it’s a class program … my heart goes out to them,” said Merrillville coach Zac Wells, who has four former Slicers on his coaching staff.
“When it’s all said and done, this is a high school football game, and we’re in a kid business. Wins and losses don’t really matter. When a person retires and the season’s over, it’s really the character of your kids that matters. It’s something we emphasize with our kids. Regardless of the outcome, they come out and play hard and it’s something we can be proud of.”
In a poignant show of class, Merrillville grad Mike Neal, a defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers who was in town with the Packers on bye, entered the Slicers’ locker room at halftime.
“We had 65 kids sitting in there just downtrodden,” Schellinger said. “He talked about life, he talked about faith and he talked about being brothers. I thought that was a great gesture on (Neal and Merrillville athletic director Janis Qualizza’s) part. It was just awesome. It was a night that was full of class.”
Merrillville (5-1, 4-0 DAC) got more than 100 yards rushing from both DJ Wilkins and Bryant Isabell. Wilkins scored Merrillville’s first three touchdowns on run plays.
Wilkins found Merrillville Mr. Football winner Tyrie Fuller for a 27-yard touchdown pass just before halftime. Starters played sparingly in the second half for Merrillville.
The Slicers fumbled once, threw two interceptions, lost their starting quarterback to an apparent Achilles tendon injury in the second quarter and were shut out for the first three quarters.
Charles Salary gave the team a reason to believe with 82 yards rushing and two touchdowns, including one to start the fourth quarter.
“No question scoring helped,” Schellinger said. “I don’t care what game it is, when you get off that goose egg it helps. It was just something that lifted a weight off us -- not even scoring, but just having success. We hadn’t had a lot of success in the last 48 hours. And that was a success, and I think that was very, very important.”
Schellinger, whose Slicers also played Merrillville in a sullen mood the Friday after 9/11, credited Qualizza and Wells and called them “class.”
He gave the most credit to West’s family, which was at the game, and his players.
“I love them to death,” he said. “I guess that’s why we do what we do as coaches. Most of us are crazy for going into this profession, but I think this is the epitome of why we do what we do.”