When Hylton’s defense lines up for the first time this season, a new player will be in the outside linebacker spot that James Parker once held down. If he’s lucky, he’ll run as well as Parker, tackle as well and even cover receivers as well.
But truthfully, the void won’t be filled this season or any time thereafter.
As Hylton resumed practice on Monday for the first time since they won the Group AAA, Division 6 state championship in December, they did so without two young men they expected to be part of their varsity football team this season.
Dustin Pacifico died in a winter car accident, according to Hylton head coach Lou Sorrentino, and Parker – known to friends and classmates as ‘Bear’ – died in a much-publicized accidental shooting in March.
Before that, in June 2002, Kenny Pekanyande, a Bulldog defensive lineman, drowned in the Atlantic Ocean off a North Carolina beach shortly after graduation.
Tragedy strikes without warning or reason, and this past Monday it also shook Manassas Park High School. Sophomore Thomas Erskine was killed in a car accident on what had been the Cougars’ first day of football practice this season.
These tragedies affect people and events far more important than those concerning a football team. But when some of a person’s best memories were made on the field, it’s hard not to be reminded of him each time you step on to it.
Sorrentino’s Bulldogs are pinned between trying to move on and not being able to forget the teammates they lost last season.
“Today was one of those things that forced you to think about it a little bit, if you normally line up next to a guy and he’s not there,” said Sorrentino, who is beginning his second season at Hylton. “As you get started again, as you get back to school again, a lot of those feelings come back.”
“Especially [with] James Parker, his locker is right beside mine,” said Hylton senior Jackie Watkins, who also plays linebacker. “He was the first friend I made when I came from Stonewall to Hylton. He was always smiling, always out there joking around.”
Sorrentino said that everyone in his program knew and respected either Pacifico, who was on the JV last season, or Parker, who was a varsity star.
“Taking football out of it, we lost two wonderful kids,” Sorrentino said.
The coach’s voice rung with genuine emotion when talking about the effect each of the young men had on him and the players in his program. The 43-year-old coach is not normally one to speak in hyperbole or with clich?s. So when he said he’s reminded of how precious life is, and that he makes a point to hug his own son and daughter more often, I believe he really does.
At such a young age, Hylton’s varsity football players have already experienced the highest highs – at least athletically, by hoisting a state championship trophy – and the lowest low, by losing friends and loved ones.
Although it’s not something the team still talks about constantly, they also do not try to avoid the subject.
This season, Hylton will memorialize Parker by wearing his number 20 on their traditional gold helmets, Sorrentino said. The coach also said he and activities director Jim Qualls were discussing other ways to remember the players, through the game program, markings on the field or something else.
“To me, [Parker] is like a captain, an honorary captain,” Sorrentino said.
“That does mean something,” said Watkins of the team memorializing Parker. “If we can”t have him there, we want something to symbolize his remembrance.”
As much as the tragedies make Sorrentino appreciate the positive memories, it also affects how he treats players now. As a coach, he now wonders if he’s doing right by each player in his program.
“You want to do what”s right, and I don”t always know what that is,” Sorrentino said. “I know a lot of kids really cared about those guys.”
“You make attachments,” Sorrentino added, “and really when it”s all said and done, that’s what you remember.”
In the case of Pacifico, Sorrentino didn’t even realize how big a part of his life Hylton football was until he and some of his staff attended Pacifico’s funeral in Morgantown, W. Va. During the ceremony, they mentioned how much Pacifico wanted to someday become part of the Hylton varsity.
Sorrentino said Pacifico was a hard worker who would have found a place on this year’s roster, even if on special teams. And he probably would have embraced whatever role he was given.
In the spring, Sorrentino went to visit Marie Parker to give her James’ state championship ring.
‘I felt really good giving it to her, because I knew how much it meant to James,’ Sorrentino said. ‘It brought back a lot of memories.’
That happens whenever Sorrentino sees Ms. Parker. It can get emotional.
For the Hylton football team, ‘family’ is not a word they toss around lightly.
‘Our motto was always treat every kid like a son, then I had kids of my own and realized that’s not possible,’ Sorrentino said. ‘So our motto became treat kids like you’d want your son to be treated.’
Hylton’s players and coaches are still treating each other that way.
Some players, particularly those who go way back in the Dale City neigborhood that the Parkers lived in, still visit James’ mother.
“I know some guys go over there and check in and see how she is doing,” said Watkins.
Sorrentino figures it’s about time for him to give both families a call to see how they are doing. Maybe he owes them something else, from the team. He’s not sure how much it helps, but he thinks if he were in the same situation, he would like that.
“Our prayers go out to the families,” Sorrentino said. “I can’t imagine losing my young daughter or son. How people deal with that amazes me.”
How his team has dealt with tragedy has been as positive as possible so far. It’s not easy to be that way.
“Some people are trying to forget, but I can’t forget,” Watkins said.
“This offseason made us face reality,” Sorrentino said. “But I’ve always said one of the reasons you play football is to learn things you can’t learn [elsewhere].”
Taking a lesson from tragedy and using it to improve our lives is probably critical to how the living cope with an unexpected death. But I don’t know if it’s always wise to come up with all of the answers or bring a column like this one to a succint close.
Hylton football players will likely one day wear football helmets without Parker’s number 20 on them. Some day, the entire varsity team may be made up of players who never heard of James Parker, much less knew him.
But for his mother, his teammates and the others who knew him, I suspect that the void is never really filled.
Today, in front of the Parker home, a townhouse, sits a black car with fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror. The license plate reads “Bear 20.”
Keith McMillan’s column appears on Tuesdays in the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (703) 878-8086.