Gorman: USO players deal with a greater loss than this defeat
The five players walked onto the field, their arms locked while carrying a white No. 50 jersey and black spikes.
Near the end of the Star-Spangled Banner, teary-eyed cheerleaders released black, gold and purple balloons.
Then the City League held a moment of silence for Ne'Ondre Harbour, a 16-year-old Obama Academy junior who was shot and killed Sunday in Garfield.
Harbour was a starting right tackle and defensive tackle for defending City champion USO, the co-op team comprising University Prep, Obama and Science and Technology.
A week that started in solemn silence Monday ended with a game Friday against Perry Traditional Academy for USO players, who have dedicated the season to their fallen teammate.
“I'm going to look to the right and he's not going to be there,” USO senior quarterback Akil Young said beforehand. “It's going to be shocking.”
USO coach Lou Berry, who wore Harbour's No. 50 jersey on the sideline, has dealt with such deaths before. He was a second-year assistant at Peabody in 1995, when running back Dorian Reid was shot and killed.
“It's really a very empty feeling because there's no manual for how to deal with this type of tragedy,” Berry said. “Like all of my players, Ne'Ondre was like a son to me. You feel like you lost a loved one.”
Berry grew up in Garfield and attended Peabody with Harbour's mother, Denise Cassell.
“That's what makes this more difficult,” he said. “It was such an honor to coach that young man, given that dynamic.”
In his pre-game speech, Berry warned his players to keep their emotions under control but encouraged them to make Harbour proud with their play.
“We love him to death,” Berry said.
Berry told his players he was proud of how they practiced, knowing they still had Harbour's viewing Sunday at Spriggs and Watson funeral home in Homewood and burial Monday ahead of them.
“One of the things I'm most proud of, our coaching staff, we stress on a daily basis to do the right things off the field,” Berry said. “It's unfortunate that these kids are exposed to so much violence. Even the innocent can fall victim to tragedy. We would understand if it was someone who didn't take to what we're preaching. But this kid had a bright future. Our community took a step back.”
No one knows that more than Cassell, the biggest and most vocal fan of her youngest child. She shouted so loud that Ne'Ondre — known by his nickname, SA — asked her to stop screaming, “That's my baby!”
A grieving Cassell cried recalling how her youngest was a man-child who stood 5-foot-11, weighed 235 pounds and wore size 13 shoes but was a polite, respectful honors student.
Then Cassell laughed in cherishing the memory of the highlight of his final game, playing fullback for a series against Westinghouse last week.
USO offensive coordinator LaRoi Johnson rewards his linemen by promising them a carry. It's an honor usually reserved for seniors, Johnson said, “but he earned it.”
“When I said, ‘Go to fullback,' he lit up. On the first play, he ran the wrong way,” Johnson said, laughing. “Then he carried six people with him for an 8-yard gain. They couldn't bring him down — running like a statue, straight up and down.”
A grieving Cassell insisted on coming to USO's game, wearing a white silk-screened T-shirt with SA's portrait and No. 50.
“It's going to be hard because I'm going to look out there and not see him on the field, and that's what's going to hurt me the most,” she said. “But if I didn't go, he'd be so mad. I have to go, to let them know that I cheered for him the most but I cheered for all of them.”
What helped was knowing that Harbour's cousin, Virgil McClendon, was wearing SA's lucky Captain America shirt under his uniform. McClendon, Young, Marcus Johnson, Myles Catlin and Jermaine Brown carried Harbour's jersey and spikes onto the field.
Berry wasn't sure how he was supposed to keep a collection of players from three schools focused on football this week.
“One thing we really pride ourselves on is being a family. We understand…,” he said, taking a long pause, “that he won't take the field Friday night.”
Berry paused again, tears trickling from his bloodshot eyes, and composed himself.
“So we'll do our best to play in his honor.”
USO missed Harbour most on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, when Perry stopped Young short to preserve a 12-6 victory that marked USO's first defeat. But as both teams huddled together for a post-game prayer, everyone knew it wasn't their greatest loss.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7812.