Nick Howard was supposed to be playing the sport he loved.

Instead, he was at Maine Medical Center in Portland, wearing his Sanford High football uniform, with his world crashing down around him.

His mother was dead.

Hours earlier, Nick and his teammates were warming up for a playoff game at Scarborough High. His mother, Lisa, had planned to attend. She dropped off her husband, Clint, the team’s statistician, before going to park the car, telling him to let Nick know “to play hard and tell him I love him.”

Those were probably the last words she spoke. She collapsed in the parking lot above the football field after an undetected brain aneurysm ruptured. A woman called 911 after seeing Lisa Howard lying unconscious next to her car. Quick-responding medical personnel revived some of her vital signs at the scene after extensive effort. But after being transported to the hospital, Lisa Howard, 54, wife, mother and lifelong football fan, died that night, Oct. 31, 2015.

“I was a little confused. Obviously destroyed mentally,” said Nick Howard, now 18. “It was like it never happened. Like I couldn’t face that it actually happened, and I was just a mess for a long time.”

“His exact words were ‘What the hell just happened?’ ” said Clint Howard, Nick’s father. “I’m glad he was 16 and not 6, but a child needs their mother even at 16, 17 or 40. For me, that’s what breaks my heart for him.”

Before her death, Lisa asked her husband to tell their son she loved him.

Football became permanently entwined with his mother’s death. But rather than run from the game, Nick Howard used it as an emotional salve.

Saturday at Thornton Academy, Howard will play in his final high school football game. He’ll be wearing No. 36 for the West team in the 28th Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic, an annual all-star game featuring the state’s top high school graduates.

GAME TAKES ON NEW MEANING

For Howard, returning to football became an outlet to release his grief and anger over the sudden loss of his mother.

“It was two hours every day with my friends. It would help me be happy for a while,” he said.

Game days became a time to think about his mother, who had passionately supported her only child’s love of the sport.

“During the national anthem I would always have a word with her, if you believe that,” Howard said. “She was always around it, I felt.”

“His mom loved to watch him compete, play football, be an athlete,” said Mike Fallon, Howard’s football coach at Sanford and the head coach of the West Lobster Bowl team. “(She) and her husband, Clint, were very involved. They followed him through every sport he played, so Nick turned that into positive energy for himself and said, ‘I’m going to do this for my mom.’ So as hard and as challenging as it was, and still is, for Nick, I think every time he put a helmet on, his mom is in his head with him.”

A late addition to the West roster, the 5-foot-8, 195-pound Howard will alternate Saturday at nose tackle, the position he played on defense as a senior at Sanford. He does not expect to play on offense, though as a senior running back he gained 460 yards and scored five touchdowns, averaging over seven yards per carry.

A two-way starter as both a junior and senior, Howard will share a Lobster Bowl sideline with Fallon, Sanford assistant coaches Keith Noel and Richard Wilkins, and Sanford teammates wide receiver Ethan Belanger and quarterback Frankie Veino.

“Very courageous. The toughest kid I’ve ever met,” Veino said. “To go through that is really hard and he handled it very well.”

Fallon said he doubts Howard’s other Lobster Bowl teammates have any idea how connected football is to his mother’s death because, “Nick’s not the type of kid who is going to walk around with a banner telling his story.”

SON PAYS TRIBUTE TO LATE MOTHER

Howard is an easygoing, warm-hearted young man with a quick smile. He’s probably told a few players that he’s excited to be attending Husson University to play football and study criminal justice this fall.

Or he might have shared the story of how he found out Fallon wanted him to fill an unexpected vacant spot on his Lobster Bowl roster.

“I found out last (week), while in Italy with Dad and couple of friends on vacation,” Howard said. “I mean, I was at lunch in Italy. I didn’t see my day going that way.”

The father and son returned to Sanford a week ago Friday. They had one day to get together the necessary paperwork, take care of the $500 fundraising responsibilities required of all Lobster Bowl players, and get Howard to the training camp at Foxcroft Academy by early Sunday morning.

The past week has been a happy whirlwind for both Nick and Clint Howard, 53, a regional sales manager for a Texas-based paper company. A 1981 Sanford High graduate, Clint lived in Texas when he met Lisa. The family moved to Sanford when their son was just starting elementary school.

Lisa Howard worked in after-school programs for the Sanford schools when her son was younger, and she was employed by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute at the time of her death. But she saw her primary job as being Nick’s mother.

“I know there’s other great mothers out there, they’re all great mothers, but to me she was the best mother,” Clint said. “She lived for Nick. No doubt there are days when he’s lost without her.”

Playing a football game against Lewiston last fall on the anniversary of Lisa’s death “was probably the most emotional game I’ve had, thinking of her,” Nick said.

Nick also played outfield for the Sanford baseball team. When the baseball squad traveled to Scarborough High for a game this spring, he and his father paid tribute to Lisa.

“We went up to the parking lot and laid a rose down. We had a moment there together,” Clint said.

On Saturday, Nick and Clint Howard will share another sports moment. As he has done since his mother’s death, Nick will tuck one of his mother’s belongings inside his uniform. When the national anthem is played, he’ll say hello to his mother.

“I’m just saying that I know she’s with me and I’m going to play as hard as I can, and hopefully I can make her proud.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig