Belaire and Istrouma have a lot to play for this week, including bragging rights and the chance at a District 7-4A title.
But the memories and the influence of three players who died in the offseason cast a shadow that looms larger than any game. Or season.
“You don’t ever replace a Steven Clark … it can’t be done,” Belaire coach Byron Wade said. “Coaches will understand this point — every team has its most talented players. But your most valuable player is the guy everybody rallies around. For us, that was Steven.”
Clark, a defensive lineman/tight end, died in an automobile crash over the summer. Istrouma defensive back/receiver Travis Wright also died over the summer in a car crash, months after lineman Roddrick Cook was the victim of gun violence, shot and killed in April near his home.
Belaire (4-1, 2-0) is off to its best start in five seasons. Istrouma (2-2, 1-1) is in its third varsity season since the school reopened five years ago. The Indians have one of Louisiana’s top senior players in running back Le’Veon Moss.
But their journey toward wins and losses, which usually comes with diagrammed plays and wind sprints, also has life lessons about death interjected. It is the kind of loss teenagers rarely expect and often are not prepared to endure.
Each school illustrates its feelings at home games, honoring the memory of lost teammates. Belaire has a banner with pictures of Clark affixed to its scoreboard. Nearly life-sized cutouts of Wright and Cook in uniform from 2020 are positioned by the Istrouma bench.
“Spectators only see what is on the field and not what is really going on … the inner workings of who your kids and team are,” Istrouma coach Jeremy Gradney said. “These were two captains. Two major pieces, cornerstones, for a program. I can’t speak for Belaire, but I believe it is the same with Steven.
“This is hard. It’s a consistent thing. We don’t forget, and those guys are with us every day and for every game. After the Liberty game, I thought about what might have been. But the guys who step into their places are doing a great job ... really all they can, which is all you can ask. Day by day.”
Examples frozen in time
Clark was eager to play his first season at Belaire this fall. He transferred from Glen Oaks after his freshman year and sat out last season per LHSAA rules.
At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Clark was a physical presence. But there was much more.
“Me and Steven have been knowing each other since we were toddlers,” Belaire receiver/linebacker Cameron Johnson said. “He was always there for me ... like he was for the team.
“My daddy died my freshman year, and Steven was like a brother and a father figure. He would get after me and tell me I needed to be disciplined and focused. I do that for him now.”
Cook (6-4, 265) was an honors student who was catching the eye of recruiters ahead of what would have been his senior season.
Wright (6-0, 165) also was an honors student who already had received a scholarship offer from Arkansas-Monticello. He was preparing to play wide receiver and defensive back as a senior. Quarterback Lakendrick Self was excited about the possibilities on offense.
“Travis was my best friend … we spent hours together, late afternoons and nights,” Self said. “We worked on pass patterns to get our timing down. We talked about how plays could work and what we hoped for this season.”
Moss was close to Cook and Wright. That factor has driven the four-star recruit to become a more vocal leader. Like Self, Moss also recalls those lighter moments when Cook and Wright would joke around.
“I do speak up and talk even more, especially with the younger players,” Moss said. “Somebody needs to show them and help lead them. I miss (Cook and Wright) so much. Now I speak for them, too. It’s important for me.”
Running back/linebacker Jakeydrick Richard said the Istrouma game was one Clark was eager to play in.
“He would be so excited about this season,” Richard said. “I think he is watching over us and is proud.”
Uncommon, common ground
When Istrouma was closed a decade ago, a number of students from that area were sent to school at Belaire. Those students returned to Istrouma five years ago, forging an unusual bond.
The continued involvement of three families who all lost a son is another.
Clark’s mother, Chiquita Keller, has missed just one Belaire game, and she addressed the team before last week’s game against Broadmoor.
“It was amazing to see those players really engage with me while I was talking,” Keller said. “I did for them what I used to do for Steven on game days ... I tried to hype them up.
“I go to the games for both of us. I started taking Steven to games since he was little. Now I follow these other boys, his teammates.”
Cook’s mother, Chlanda Gibson, continues her role as president of the Indians’ booster club. She also will escort one of the senior football players in the homecoming court this week.
“It’s important for us as a family to follow through with this,” Gibson said. “Those kids ... they just light up when they see our family.
"There is a bond for us with those players and each other. No one truly understands what you're going through like someone who also is going through it."
Wright’s family has not missed a game. His parents attend pep rallies, visit with his teachers, and welcome players and coaches into their home.
They also look forward to meeting the Florida teen who received their son’s heart via a transplant.
“It’s therapy for us and for them, I think,” said Wright’s father, Roosevelt. “The football team comes by and so does the volleyball team. They go sit in his room and talk with us.
"They tell us stories about Travis we did not know, and we tell them stories, too. Some days, it is hard. But I think it does all of us good.”