All three images feature a young man in his athletic prime and all three are football players. One wears a Vanderbilt baseball cap and a large grin on his face on National Signing Day in 2010. A second shows a high school running back splitting a pair of defenders and under his helmet a gleam can be seen in the teen’s eyes. The final image is the oldest of the three and shows a determined defensive end at the 2007 NFL Combine.
Working in sports, death doesn’t cross my desk often. When it does, the victims are young and the circumstances tragic. I never expect it.
Each death hits me hard, not because I became acquainted with their story only when tragedy stuck, but because I knew them before their life moved from the sports section to the local news. I shook their hands, conducted interviews or photographed them. I watched them bring crowds to their feet and pride to their schools.
Rajaan Bennett, the young Vanderbilt commit, was a star athlete at McEachern High School before being shot and killed by a family acquaintance in Feb. 2010. I had interviewed Bennett in late January for an article about high school recruiting and quoted the high school senior saying that he planned to go to Vanderbilt because he wanted to be close enough for his mother to see him play.
The last time I saw Bennett, I teased him about giving up basketball after earning his football scholarship. With a smile, he corrected me and said he gave up basketball for his family — so he could have more time with them before going to college.
River Ridge’s Vince Djoku has the No. 1 stenciled on his chest just below “Knights” in my photo. It was a Nov. 2012 game against Ridgeland and the Knights lost 48-14 despite a touchdown by Djoku, then a high school senior. I wasn’t at that game and I have no memory of ever seeing Djoku play. My memorial interaction came months later when Djoku became the first River Ridge football player to commit to college. We spoke on the phone the night that he made his verbal commitment to Lenior-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C.
“I like the coaches, the players, the environment, the town, the city,” he told me in a quote for my article. I shook his hand five days later on National Signing Day.
Two months ago, I wrote a different type of article about Djoku after he drowned at the age of 19 in a lake near his college campus.
April 2007 was an exciting time to be in Clemson, South Carolina. The NFL draft was coming up and Tiger defensive end Gaines Adams was projected to be a first round pick. Over three football seasons I had photographed Adams dozens of times, either in games or for feature stories. On the eve of the draft, I designed a stunning front page with a cutout of Adams, who turned heads at the combine. Adams went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the fourth overall pick. He signed a $46 million dollar contract in July and while I never saw him in person again, a copy of that front page was made into a poster and hung on my wall for years.
Adams, who was eventually traded to the Chicago Bears, died suddenly in January 2010 as the result of a previously unknown medical condition.
Tuesday, 48 hours after I heard former Lassiter High School and Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen had been killed in a car accident, I sat at my desk and searched for a video. It took a matter of seconds to find a copy of what I still consider one of the greatest plays I have witnessed. I copied the link and saved it to the desktop folder. I’ve probably watched the 56 second highlight clip a dozen times in the last three days.
It shows Lutzenkirchen, who is leaping out of the back of the end zone, catch a pass from Hutson Mason and quickly shuffle it to Reid Handler for a touchdown. The clip made the ESPN top 10 in Nov. 2008, but ultimately wasn’t a factor in that game. I interviewed Lutzenkirchen at least once more before he left for Auburn, where he would help the Tigers win a National Championship in 2010, but it’s that play that still makes me smile.
There was more to these men’s lives than football, but that is the place where their lives’ intersected with mine. I cover sports -- ‘the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat’ – and never thought death would have a place. I look at the photos in the un-named desktop folder occasionally, not to remind me what was, but of what could have been. They remind me to tell the stories while I can and that everyone deserves a chance to be someone’s hero.
I hope I never have to add to that folder again.
Emily Horos is sports editor of The Cherokee Tribune.