FRYEBURG — “Write something that will help these boys,” said the father of a Gorham High football player. He was holding back tears.

“For 88 quarters and 23 games they’ve trudged onto the field, looking at a scoreboard that’s telling them they’re not going to win,” said Steve Pellerin, whose son Rob is a Gorham junior who plays guard and linebacker. “They don’t give up on themselves. Then they win their first game.

“And it gets ripped away from them. Put yourself in their shoes.”

Big Branden Denis died in a car crash last Sunday in Bridgton, days after Gorham beat Oceanside for its first win in two years.

Branden’s funeral was Friday evening at Gorham High. Less than 24 hours after dealing with the emotions of grief and pain at the service the football team boarded two buses for the ride to Fryeburg for the last game of the regular season.

Win, and Gorham had a chance to reach the playoffs. Lose and the season was over.

Fryeburg scored the game’s first two touchdowns and won, 47-22.

“I wonder how emotionally drained they were,” said Andy Hager, the first-year Gorham coach. “I’m a tough coach. I want them to compete. I want them to go hard every time they’re on the field.

“But to coach this team this week was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life. Branden was the glue that kept everyone together. He really held the house up and he was missing today.”

Hager is only 26. He played for Gorham High before he went away to Wagner College on Staten Island in New York City. He was a philosophy major. Who knew that would help guide him through a week for which there are no game plans.

“The community and the school has been unbelievable with their support,” said Hager. “The football community in this state gave me more support than I could ask for.”

We live in hard times. Nasty and scary times. Some ask where our humanity has gone.

A member of the Fryeburg football family was in his car Sunday and came upon the accident. He stopped, along with maybe three others before first responders arrived. This person reached for Branden’s pulse but the 16-year-old was gone. His mother, the driver of the car, couldn’t reach Branden and asked the man to hold her son in his arms. He did.

Fryeburg Athletic Director Sue Thurston told me that story Saturday. The man didn’t know Branden, didn’t know he was the big lineman for Gorham High. In fact, Fryeburg scouted Gorham and knew how important Branden was to the team.

Thurston wouldn’t identify the man who spent the past week away from school dealing with his grief. He came to Saturday’s game perhaps understanding his football family would help him.

Kevin Denis watched the game holding his grandson’s helmet. Anytime he looked away from the action he saw Superman T-shirts, capes and sweats, all with the number 64. Denis was amazed at the support and compassion shown his family.

Branden’s nickname was Superman. It seemed he could carry anyone physically or emotionally on his shoulders. He loved giving hugs.

He might have been a captain this season, his family told me, but he was only a junior and he believed seniors on the team earned the honor. He would work to be named a team captain next season.

A football game was played but somehow everything found its proper balance. Fryeburg’s PA announcer recognized Gorham’s grief and reminded that 10 years ago when a building holding Fryeburg football equipment burned and everything was lost, Gorham stepped up to help.

Fryeburg cheerleaders wore number 64 high on their cheeks. They handed out maroon ribbons with number 64. Players on both teams wore his number.

At the coin toss, the Fryeburg’s captains walked to the center of the field with Thurston, who was named an honorary captain. She lost her father earlier this season. “Tears were streaming down my face,” she said. Her father was gone, but now she was coming face to face with Hager, a student she taught when she was on the Gorham High staff.

“I can’t believe what he’s gone through.” She looked at his captains. What were they going through?

Kevin Denis believed he understood. After the game, Denis walked to the Gorham team buses.

“I want to thank the players for how hard they played.”

Superman would have appreciated that.


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