As Western New York heads back to the football fields after the toughest of weeks, I decided to give Portville coach Gary Swetland a call.
I’m very glad I did.
Swetland is like many high school football coaches, who have been chosen – and I don’t just mean by their employers – to lead young men, to mold them, to have an impact on them for the rest of their lives. A majority of the high school coaches I have encountered fit this description, regardless of sport, gender or geography.
Sometimes coaches have to help navigate young people through challenges much more difficult than those printed on their season schedule.
“Any time that anything tragic affects anyone’s life, or some debilitating adversity occurs, when there are some tremendous challenges which challenge every aspect of who you are and what you’re doing, it’s part of the healing process to put one foot in front of the other,” said Swetland, who has been coaching for 27 years, all but four of those as head coach. “What we’re doing is part of the healing process: One foot in front of the other, and work productively towards what you’re trying to work towards.
“After some period of time, and we don’t know how long it will take, we’ll be afforded time to heal enough to where you have perspective on it.
“Everyone has to heal forward.”
Swetland’s Portville Panthers were the opponent one week ago during the game in which Damon Janes of Brocton suffered head injuries that would result in his death three days later.
As our teams, students and communities return to gather under Friday night lights or on an autumnal Saturday afternoon, Janes remains in the consciousness of all of Western New York football. His funeral will be Saturday morning in Westfield. His Westfield/Brocton team’s scheduled game against Ellicottville has been postponed.
Prior to all Section VI games tonight, a moment of silence will be observed and a statement read supporting Janes’ family and his community. Teams throughout Western New York will honor Janes with helmet stickers during Week Three, as 74 local teams participate in 38 games.
“There’s a football family all across Western New York, and everybody is eager to be part of that,” Swetland said. “There’s not a coach in Western New York that looks at all of this and isn’t shaken. There’s no good place to be from all of this, regardless of who you are in Western New York football.
“I’d like to think we are doing all we can, with as good a heart about it as we can.”
One of tonight’s games will have Portville hosting Nichols at 7 p.m.
“We’re taking it one day at a time, and soon enough it will be one play at a time,” Swetland said. “Soon enough hopefully it will come back to one week at a time, one month at a time, one season at a time, one year at a time and on and on.
“Some of the wonder and concern and the – ‘Wow, I can’t believe it’ – to a certain extent is much like life itself. Sometimes inexplicable, or tragic, or fantastic things happen, in all of our lives, and regardless of how they impacted us, we have to be able to heal forward, to go forward, and do what you have to do. It’s very, very challenging, and it’s very difficult, and very emotional, and it tests everything that you are, and everything you want to be.”
Every time I go cover a high school football game, and every time you go watch one, and every time the coaches and players take to the field, there is an ambulance stationed somewhere nearby. It’s mandated, because obviously football is a collision sport and there will be injuries. Most people walk by and probably don’t even think about why it’s there. I know I often haven’t.
“This isn’t part of the game,” said Swetland. “It’s unfortunate, and it’s awful, and words can’t describe how heartbreaking this is. Nevertheless, it’s not typical of football, any football at any level.”
As fans file into bleachers with blankets, and schoolmates congregate to be at the big game (even while perhaps not watching it), as officials shake hands with each other at the 50-yard line, and when the players file toward the field, their cleats click-clacking, one foot in front of the other, we all will have the same thought:
We hope that those ambulances won’t have to be used.
“It has been a tough week to say the least, but what we’re dealing with is nothing to what those families and communities are dealing with,” Section VI football chairman Ken Stoldt said Thursday. “We are tremendously saddened. If there’s anything we can do to support the families and those schools involved, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
Here is the statement that will be read prior to all Section VI football games this weekend.
“On behalf of the entire Section VI of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, we offer our deepest condolences and support to the family, friends and classmates of Damon Janes, including the school-communities of Brocton, Westfield and Portville. Please know that you are in the hearts of the entire Western New York athletic community.”