Phil Anastasia: For Mainland, tears, then football

Before the kickoff, Mainland players pay tribute to the four teammates who were killed in an auto crash Aug. 20. Hammonton's players offered them handshakes, hugs and high-fives.
Before the kickoff, Mainland players pay tribute to the four teammates who were killed in an auto crash Aug. 20. Hammonton's players offered them handshakes, hugs and high-fives.

Though the Mustangs lost to Hammonton, they played hard for lost teammates.

Posted: September 10, 2011

LINWOOD - The coach wanted things to be normal. Typical. Routine.

He talked strategy in the pregame meeting. He told his players to stick to their habits. He told them to do what high school football players do on opening night - run on the field and pound each other on the shoulder pads, then line up and collide with the other kids in the different-colored uniforms.

"It was all about football," Mainland coach Bob Coffey said of the team's season opener.

Mainland lined up and played a tough, physical game against Hammonton in the Cape-Atlantic National Division game on a cool, clear Friday night before a huge crowd on the Mustangs' home field off Route 9.

Hammonton won, 23-7, using a sturdy defense and its signature powerful ground game. For the Blue Devils, that's normal.

But there was a moment before the game when all the trappings of the event - the lights high above the field, the band and the cheerleaders, the capacity-plus crowd in the home bleachers of the stadium known as the "Mustang Corral" - framed a scene that transcended sport.

That's when Mainland's players entered on the field in full uniforms for the first time since four of their teammates were killed in an Aug. 20 automobile accident.

And that's when Hammonton's players lined up to form a path through which the Mustangs would enter the field, and offered handshakes, hugs and high-fives, and every heart rose into every throat, and things weren't normal anymore.

Things were special.

"It's really uplifting," said John Brenner, whose son Casey was one of the four players who were killed in the accident on the Garden State Parkway. "It's keeping us all afloat."

Ted Khoury, whose son Dean also was killed, seemed to feel the same way. Ted Khoury wore Dean's No. 67 jersey.

"It wasn't so much about the game for him as the camaraderie," Ted Khoury said. "He was about wearing the jersey on game day, so I'm going to wear the jersey on game day."

It was some scene, with around 3,000 spectators on Mainland's side of the field, and many of them wearing specially made shirts that honored the four boys. "Mustangs Forever," every other shirt seemed to read.

There was a golf cart outfitted for the occasion, with a football at each corner of the roof with the jersey numbers of the four boys: 20 for Casey Brenner, 34 for Edgar Bozzi, 67 for Dean Khoury, and 47 for Nick Connor.

Mainland officials also unveiled a mural on the front wall of the press box. It was already started by an art teacher and a former student when the accident occurred but was altered to include the names of the four victims written on horses galloping across a landscape.

After kickoff, it seemed like a normal game. Hammonton is a top team, ranked seventh in South Jersey by The Inquirer. Mainland is a solid team, but a longshot to win the division title or challenge for the Group 3 sectional crown.

Given the circumstances, Mainland played a remarkable game. A couple of turnovers hurt the Mustangs, but they went toe-to-toe with a top-10 team on the most poignant opening night in the history of the program.

"It was a tribute to them that they were even out here," Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said of Mainland.

It was a tough victory for Hammonton. That's normal.

It was a strong effort for Mainland. That's normal, too.

Normal was good on this night.

Special was even better.

Hammonton 3 7 6 7 – 23

Mainland 0 7 0 0 – 7

H: FG Podovani 23

H: Mortelitte 1 run (Podovani kick)

M: Kaczmarski 38 run (Cooper kick)

H: Brown 37 run (kick failed)

H: Forchion 80 run (Podovani kick)

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223,,

or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.

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