MERRILLVILLE | Around the region Friday night, football teams and fans held moments of silence — keeping one team and community in their thoughts.
At Merrillville, as the LaPorte Slicers ran onto the football field, they received a standing ovation from Pirate fans, many of whom wore orange T-shirts, jeans, headbands or ribbons.
Pirate fans applauded; they held the Slicer family in their hearts.
On this night of Merrillville's homecoming, many Pirate fans paid tribute to 17-year-old Jake West, a LaPorte junior and football player who collapsed during practice Wednesday and later died of a genetic heart condition.
Before the two teams took to the field, four Slicers walked to the center for the coin toss. They carried West's jersey as a tribute.
West's mother, father and sister were at the game and received the white No. 26 jersey of Jake's after the game off on the sidelines.
A flag holding West's number, 26, flew in the south end zone of the MHS field. It would be given to the team after the game, said announcer Mike Blaney, after a moment of silence.
Merrillville fan Lillie Washington wore an orange ribbon dangling from her glasses.
"It's to say we grieve with them. They are sad. Our hearts are with them," she said.
On the away side of the field, Slicer fans donned orange T-shirts. They hung homemade banners over the railing urging the team to "Play for Jake." Another said "We Love our Angel."
NFL player and Merrillville graduate Mike Neal, of the Green Bay Packers, was on hand for homecoming and spoke to the LaPorte players in the locker room after the game.
LaPorte coach Bob Schellinger said the decision to play Friday night wasn't up to him.
"It was up to two groups of people. The first group was these players and whether they felt they could compete and play tonight and focus. That was No. 1," he said. "The second group was that family right there. The school was not going to make this decision. They were going to let that family and those players make it, and they both were a resounding yes, and that’s why we went ahead and played the game."
It wasn't the first time LaPorte and Merrillville have faced off after tragedy. They played each other after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- another night when emotions ran high and football took a backseat to real life.
Friday night, with a team that has been winless through four games, LaPorte's community followed the Slicers to Merrillville -- filling up two fan buses.
"This shows our community, what we’re made of in LaPorte. I know we’re not winning many football games, but sometimes life’s bigger than football and bigger than winning and losing," Schellinger said. "Our student body knew that and our kids knew that, and that’s why they’re hanging together, because they’re drawing strength from each other."
Pirate players wore a decal of No. 26 on their helmets. The school's cheerleaders wore orange ribbons in their hair and the dance team wore orange armbands.
"I respect his parents and I hope they can get through this and I believe Merrillville does care. I will keep them in my prayers," said Merrillville freshman Ricky Sease, who sat with a group of friends who had fashioned orange tape into wristbands and stripes on their jackets.
Hannah Webster, an Merrillville alum and now a student at Butler University came to watch her brother Frank, a senior, play.
"He said he told the team, 'We have another game next week. We can give this kid this one night'," Webster said.
Darlisa Akins, watched as her daughter participated on the cheer squad and her son worked as the MHS mascot. She wore an orange ribbon in her hair.
"Being a parent of high school kids, it shows support. It could be any child, any day. It makes your heart ache," Akins said.
At other high school football games across the region, teams and fans showed support. Orange was spotted at the Andrean/Highland game and the Hobart/Lowell contest among others.
A Celebration of Life Service for West will be held at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Kiwanis Field in LaPorte. The service is open to the public. - Times Correspondent Paul Trembacki contributed.