Sharon football team plays for fallen teammates, pride in playoff game
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ERIE — For the Sharon High School Tigers, this was all about life after death.
So, with his football team and his town still stunned over the deaths of senior starters Evan Gill and Corey Swartz in a two-vehicle crash less than 72 hours earlier, coach Jim Wildman shared a eulogy moments before kickoff of the Tigers' District 10 playoff game Monday night against Girard.
Wildman held up a folding measuring tape, counting off the inches to equate years in a man's life. The average lifespan, he told his team, is 76 years. Wildman folded it to show that he was 66, then folded it several times more until it was, like his players, in the teens.
“There are no guarantees with the number of inches,” said Wildman, a 26-year coaching veteran. “We know this: We have 48 minutes (in a high school football game). ... We know, we know, every one of us knows, how we're going to spend those 48 minutes: like it's the last 48 minutes on our yardstick.”
With that, the Tigers took the field at Veterans Memorial Stadium amid a rainfall that turned to snowflakes, finding a temporary reprieve from a reality that soon will return to funereal.
Two of their teammates are dead, along with John Zdelar, 50, of Brookfield, Ohio, the driver of the pickup that was hit head-on when the sport utility vehicle Swartz was driving crossed a median strip on East Connelly Boulevard in Sharon on Friday night.
Two other Sharon starters, twin brothers Craig and Greg Osmon, both 17, suffered serious injuries in the crash and underwent surgery in a Youngstown hospital.
Zdelar's stepson, Evan Wallace, 12, and Wallace's friend, Blake Yenderak, 12, of Brookfield, who were riding in the pickup, were released following hospital treatment.
Earlier Monday at Tigers Stadium in Sharon, team members walked past the empty lockers of Gill and Swartz, both 17. Players stopped to touch their jerseys, draped across stools, and to say a prayer. They passed around an autographed football to give to their families.
The game, originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon, was canceled. When District 10 officials offered to allow the teams to play Monday or Tuesday, Wildman had his seniors to vote on it. They approved unanimously, quickly spreading word of a Sunday afternoon practice.
“It was heartbreaking to walk into the locker room and see that two of our teammates weren't there anymore,” said Jordan Davis, a junior tackle. “Everyone was down. We knew that Evan and Corey wouldn't want us to be down. They were always smiling. They would have wanted us to play this game.
“We want to finish strong, show Sharon pride.”
Shenango Valley pride was on display on Sunday, as cheerleaders from neighboring communities made supportive signs and formed a line outside the locker room to greet the team for Sunday's practice. That night, more than 1,000 people showed up at the stadium for a candlelight vigil.
Troy Hejazi, a senior tight end-linebacker, had accompanied the foursome to Hickory to watch nearby West Middlesex in a playoff game. Swartz dropped Hejazi at home first.
Moments later, Hejazi heard a horrific crash. About 20 minutes later, a police officer knocked on his door, worried that Hejazi might have been in the wreck.
“It broke my heart,” Hejazi said. “I couldn't believe it. I still don't believe it.”
Hejazi honored his friend by wearing Swartz's white No. 9 jersey, which Hejazi slept in the night before the game, instead of his own No. 11.
“I just hope that his family is honored by me wearing the number,” Hejazi said. “It'll show that he's still on the field and still part of this team.”
Three other Tigers wore the jerseys of the seniors involved in the crash: Beau Dignall wore Gill's No. 67, Jay'Quan Jackson wore Craig Osmon's No. 70, and Kendall Sheffield wore Greg Osmon's No. 72. The Tigers also wore the numbers of Gill and Swartz inside paw prints on helmet stickers.
“This probably will be the toughest thing I'll have to do,” Hejazi said. “But I'm going to be strong. I'm going to do my best for them and win this game for them. Win or lose, we're going to go out with a bang.”
Zdelar, who is survived by his wife, Kim, and three stepchildren, also was involved in sports.
He was a crew member for King Motor Sports at the Sharon Speedway and worked on the farm he inherited from his father.
Family members said he had saved money for a new tractor “so he could better take care of the farm,” his brother Joe, 57, said. “It was something he hoped to have for years and years.
“He was only 50, but I think he was thinking about retiring early. He and his wife talked about living an easier life, to enjoy their life more.
“That was cut short by this tragedy. I wonder to myself why this had to happen. John had such a sense of humor. He could talk to young or old and be their best friend. He was such a great family man, and these young kids had their entire lives to look forward to.”
Zdelar's mother, Mary Zdelar, 77, of Brookfield, said her son was a wonderful man who tried to make everyone happy.
“There's nothing I can do,” she said. “I guess God wanted it that way.”
Visitation for Zdelar will be held on Wednesday in Brookfield. Services are scheduled for Thursday.
Friends of Swartz will be received from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in J. Bradley McGonigle Funeral Home in Sharon. Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Joseph Church in Sharon.
Visitation for Gill will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in John Flynn Funeral Home and Crematory in Hermitage. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in Sharon Baptist Church.
Staff writers Adam Brandolph, Michael Hasch and Jason Mackey contributed to this report.
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