BROCTON — Before the start of every season football coaches will tell their players that they are bound to face a little adversity during the season. But nothing could have prepared the Westfield/Brocton players for what they are confronting.
Monday’s death of junior running back Damon Janes, 16, three days after sustaining a hit in a game against Portville, has left the players from the combined Class D team in the Section VI Federation devastated.
“It’s going to be really hard to move on,” said senior Macalum Buchanan, who often lined up in the backfield next to Janes. “It’s going to be weird, even like going to school is weird.”
Brocton’s classes and athletic contests have been cancelled for the week, while the homecoming festivities planned for this weekend have been postponed. Westfield’s athletic events through Friday also have been cancelled or postponed.
Brocton’s school has remained open during the day, and for the last three nights has been open to students or community members who wanted to meet to grieve. There will be a candlelight vigil at the school tonight at 7. The football coaches and players have met several times since last Friday night when Janes was rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.
Buchanan described Janes as a daredevil who could also be playful, sarcastic and carefree. Football was his main sport, but he also was passionate about motocross. On the field he said Janes loved to run over people and he was considered the toughest player on the team.
Buchanan said the fateful play that ultimately cost Janes his life was a broken running play.
“I was actually somewhat next to him, and when he fell, he sort of fell next to me,” said Buchanan, who was scared by what he saw next. “If Damon goes off the sidelines, he’s hurt, for sure. Otherwise he would not, a little sting to him is nothing. But no one thought this.”
Buchanan said it looked like Janes may have gotten struck in the head by the thigh of a Portville player and that it was a clean hit.
“They were just playing the game, doing what they had to get him down,” he said. “They didn’t do it on purpose. I just think that’s kind of dumb. No one is out there trying to hurt anyone.”
Kyle Witmer is a senior wide receiver who never thought his duties as a team captain would involve something so heartbreaking.
“It’s going to be hard, but we’re going to get through it together. If we still get to play, I’m going to go out and play my hardest and play the way he would have played,” he said.
On Tuesday Witmer was dressed from head to toe in pink, a pink muscle shirt and pink shorts, as pink was Janes’ favorite color. On Monday the students dressed in Bulldog green.
“He could do anything the coaches asked him,” he said. “He was a hard-nosed football player and everybody noticed that, and everybody loved him for that. None of us expected this at all.”
Signs of Brocton’s loss were everywhere along Main Street. Telephones poles had green and blue ribbons nailed to them to symbolize the Brocton and Westfield school colors. A large sign which read “Pray for Damon” hung at the base of the popular Green Arch Restaurant. The large American flag in the school courtyard flew at half staff.
Brocton is a small, tight-knit community and school district. The high school enrollment is approximately 160, or 40 students per grade level. Last year’s graduating class was 43, but that included three exchange students.
John Hertlein has been a school administrator for the last 43 years and the superintendant at Brocton for the past 3½ years. He said he knew Janes better than most because his grandmother worked in the school’s business office, and he would often come in to visit her. Although grief counselors have been available in the school, he said, “The kids are taking care of themselves and are doing a great job of finding their own sense of strength. They’ve been strong and resilient and they’re actually supporting us.”
Brocton athletic director Jake Hitchcock said he would not be available on Tuesday, and football coach Bob North declined a telephone interview request.