BROCTON – The storefront window of Studio 64 near the main intersection of the village, near the antique shop and across the street from the community bank, was covered with posters Tuesday that clearly were written when Damon Janes was still in the hospital and fighting for his life.
“Giving Up is Simply NOT an option,” one read.
“We are praying for you Damon. #25”
“#25 Always believe in miracles.”
Damon never gave up, but prayers and hopes for miracles were unanswered before the Westfield-Brocton running back died Monday. His parents were left with profound sadness that comes with the death of a child, indescribable grief that seems worse when considering the 16-year-old junior was so full of life.
The Janes family requested privacy Tuesday and understandably so. Their lives were shattered, their hearts broken. How could they make sense of their emotions when their son’s death made no sense? He left for his football game Friday night happy and healthy. He never returned.
“I don’t know what his family is going through,” Brocton School Superintendent John Hertlein said. “There’s no way in heck I could ever understand what they’re going through. I hope I never do. They’re grieving and grieving heavily over the loss of their child. There are no words I could use to describe what they’re going through.”
Damon scored a touchdown on a 5-yard run in the third quarter, giving Westfield-Brocton its only points in a game against Portville that failed to reach its conclusion before his life did. The game was called shortly after he left woozy but walking following a devastating hit later in the quarter. He lost consciousness along the bench.
In no time, word spread through the Southern Tier that his injury was far more serious than initially believed. Friends and community leaders quickly began assembling a benefit at the Nickel Plate Depot restaurant, near the railroad tracks running through town, to help his family after he was discharged from the hospital.
Three days later, he was dead.
“It’s a very tightknit community,” said Louis Kinney, who was eating breakfast at the Green Arch Restaurant. “It’s not a very happy time of year in here now. A lot of kids in his class are hurting. But we always bounce back.”
Football players understand that the sport comes with an inherent risk of injury. Nobody signs up for death, which makes what happened to Damon that much more terrifying.
It could have happened to anybody. Life isn’t always fair and doesn’t always make sense. The human spirit tells us to plow forward.
In the weeks after Damon’s death, there will be more questions than answers. Is football too dangerous? Are helmets too strong or not strong enough? Did he suffer a blow to the head earlier in the game that contributed to a catastrophic hit later? Did he receive proper medical attention? They are questions for another day.
A child is dead.
It was hard to comprehend a day later. Damon’s classmates at Brocton and teammates at Westfield were in tears Tuesday, and two communities joined by football mourned with them. The sorrow could be felt anywhere you stopped in Brocton, which will be hurting for some time. You have to sympathize with Portville’s players, too.
A few years ago, Brocton dropped its football program after one game because they had too many injuries and couldn’t compete with other schools. They combined with Westfield to make one team. There has been talk about the two districts merging, which led to a simmering feud among some. It all seems so petty now.
“When something like this happens, everybody comes together,” said Billy Begier, an acquaintance of Damon who lives in Westfield but was grabbing lunch in Brocton. “The sad thing is that it takes something like this to happen before people realize we’re actually one big family.”
Close friends and neighbors weren’t comfortable speaking publicly about Damon out of respect for his parents. Still, they made it clear that he was a terrific kid from a respected family. He was a fun-loving teenager with a thick backbone, one tough enough to challenge bigger opponents and classy enough to show respect for them.
His death was particularly difficult in close-knit Brocton, a slice of small-town America that looks straight from a Norman Rockwell collection. It has been home to the Janes family for generations. They’re as much a part of Brocton as the one traffic signal, the aging library and the antique shop on Main Street.
Damon’s father, Dean, was a good player back in his day, when high school football was the biggest event in town during the fall. He later became a logger. Damon’s grandfather is among the many grape farmers in town. His grandmother is a secretary at the school. Almost everybody knows them or knows somebody who does.
And once you hear what people say about Damon, you wish that you knew him, too. He was a football player who was equally skilled in motocross. He loved fishing and hunting and anything that led him outdoors. He had a good sense of humor and was deeply loyal to his family, friends and teammates.
Their admiration for him was obvious when strolling through town, where streetlight posts were wrapped with ribbons, and signs were taped in storefront windows. One message that was intended for him at Studio 64 actually applied to the community:
Based on how people described Damon, it seemed like something he would say to them.