It's not often that the loudest cheer of a heated high school playoff game comes during the coin toss, but that's precisely what happened on Friday night during an Ohio Div. II football state semifinal. The reason behind the reaction was clear: Just more than 24 hours after Aurora (Ohio) High football player Paul McGhee died in a tragic one-car accident after leaving his team's practice on Thanksgiving Day, his teammates walked to midfield for the semifinal's opening coin toss clad in special black jerseys, holding his number 57 jersey aloft.
When Avon (Ohio) High reached midfield with them, they anxiously awaited the coin toss from officials, then cheered with the fans from both teams in the stands when Aurora won the toss.
The generous act of community solidarity and sportsmanship followed the most trying holiday any of the Aurora football players could ever have encountered. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealaer and Cleveland ABC affiliate NewsNet 5, McGhee died on impact when his Saturn Vue struck a tree while he drove home from his team's practice on Thanksgiving Day. The accident occurred at 1 p.m. in broad daylight, and there is reportedly no indication that any foul play illegal substances or other suspicious activity was involved in the tragic death whatsoever.
According to NewsNet5, Aurora football coach Bob Mihalik consulted with McGhee's parents before deciding to press forward with the state semifinal for a simple reason: The McGhees said that their son would have wanted the team to play as scheduled.
"We put so much time and effort into football but the game doesn't seem that important all the sudden," Mihalik told the Plain Dealer. "Well try to go out and play like how Paulie played. He had a great zest for life, a great sense of humor."
The teen was clearly also a valued member of the greater community in Aurora, a small suburb north of Cleveland which is often known more for its lush, scenic drives and the largest outlet mall complex in Northeast Ohio. On Thanksgiving night, a rapid vigil for McGhee drew nearly 500 Aurora citizens.
That emotion carried over to Friday's semifinal, which included the Parma (Ohio) High Field's public address announcer tearing up as he spoke on the circumstances surrounding McGhee's death before the entire stadium held a moment of silence in remembrance, and eventually finished in a 43-20 Avon win.
That Aurora's season would end on Friday was perhaps only fitting, with the entire team expected at the teenagers memorial service in the school's gym on Sunday. It may not go down on the final record that way, but the Greenmen's final, most fitting victory came during before their last game even started, during the pregame coin toss.