That the most touching tribute yet to four fallen New Jersey football players took place on the field they expected to compete on seems only fitting. That hundreds of members of both the Mainland Regional High community and many others added to the somber and deeply emotionally charged memorial.
And that one of Mainland's fiercest rivals showed up for the memorial in force -- there were between 15 and 20 Absecon (N.J.) Holy Spirit High players and coaches in attendance -- shows that some tragedies go far beyond traditional prep sports bounds to unify an entire region.
As chronicled by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Press of Atlantic City and numerous other outlets, the Sunday night candlelight vigil held by the Mainland Regional High School community was about remembering the lives of four young student athletes taken far too young and also giving the community an arena in which to grieve publicly.
Hundreds more later gathered on Monday at a beach spot where the Mainland teens were known to spend many of their summer days, paddling out for a surf-style memorial ceremony.
"People need to be with people," Mainland Superintendent Thomas Baruffi told the Inquirer before the Sunday night ceremony. "That's what tonight is all about."
Sunday night was also all about Casey Brenner, Edgar Bozzi, Nick Conner and Dean Khoury, the four Mainland High football players who died en route to a post-morning practice team breakfast. The four other team members who were injured in the wreck -- Jacob Smith, Kenneth Randall, Kyle Beattie and Alex Denafo -- have survived, with three released from the hospital where they were treated. The fourth affected by the accident is still receiving hospitalized care, and no updates on his condition could legally be provided to the press, though his injuries continue to be classified as "non-life-threatening."
At several points during Sunday's ceremony, those who stepped forward to publicly memorialize the dead broke down in tears. The Holy Spirit head coach, Charlie Roman, described all those familiar with the players and the Mainland team in general as feeling "numb" after the tragedy.
Meanwhile, one of Roman's players, senior Ethan Gambale, reflected on aborted plans for members of the two teams to see each other for a friendly cross-rivalry evening out just hours after the accident occurred.
"I guess it shows you can't take life for granted," said Gambale, promising to dedicate his team's season to the victims. "Every day is not promised to you. It's going to be so strange when we play those guys, because those kids are not going to be there."
Other members of the community were quick to weigh in with how the tragedy would remain with them as well.
"I watched these kids grow up in front of me," lifeguard Dan Gordon, of Northfield, told the Press of Atlantic City. "These were good, good kids. It's so sad to see what happened, but at the same time, it's great to bring the whole community together to honor four great kids."
As Gambale alluded to, the Mainland four may not be there for football season, but their teammates and coach will, thanks to what Mainland coach Bob Coffey described as an overwhelming outpouring of support from the greater New Jersey community.
"We've got a lot of love here, and we're going to need it," Coffey said. "We've got to take it day by day, even minute by minute."