On a cold, windy Monday at sunset, the Brusly football team walked off the field with thoughts of more than just the upcoming regional battle against Parkview Baptist.
Monday would’ve been the 19th birthday of Justin Warner, who died in May from gunshot wounds he suffered at a gas station near the Intracoastal Waterway bridge.
Players and coaches reflected on the fellow player whom they wish could share in the revelry of the team’s success this season.
The school dedicated the entire of athletics to Warner’s memory. It holds a particularly large impact on the football team, on which he played three seasons.
The 2012 Panthers have kept Warner’s spirit alive. His cubbyhole still bears his name and Number 72, along with the helmet and the dirt-caked cleats he wore to spring practice drills.
It also sports the banner Brusly received for its win Nov. 2 against Port Allen.
Brendon Alexander often sits by Warner’s cubbyhole and reflects on his departed teammate.
Every morning, he kisses the Bible that sits in Warner’s cubbyhole.
“I put it there right after his death, and I use it for motivation every day,” Alexander said. “He had way of motivating us.
“Anytime you felt down, he had a way of turning that frown back into a smile,” Alexander said. “We know he’s with us every day.”
Senior Otis Spriggs also remembers Warner’s upbeat personality.
“He was just great to hang around,” he said. “We know we must fight on – and he’d want it that way – so we’re going to win for him. He’d love to have been on this team his senior year, so we’re doing our best for him.”
Senior Terrance West – one of Warner’s cousins – said a huge void remains on the team.
“It’s much different without him … he’s definitely missed,” West said. “His brother Jerome was on the last team to reach the regionals, and I know he’d be talking a lot about it. We’re trying to pick up where he left off.
“In his personal life, he went through more than us, so he was always the one who picked up people when we were down,” he said. “Now we’re trying to do something for him.”
DiMario Jackson, who played with Warner since middle school, said he still feels the impact.
“It was very much like losing a brother,” he said. “We knew we’d have to come out and suck it up. He was our brother, he’d want us to come out and play so we’re doing this for him”
After other players left, head coach Erik Wills stood alone on the field as darkness set. Along with his players, he felt a close bond to Warner and knew him as a caring leader for the players.
“If you don’t know his family, the community or him, it seems like a statistic, and that’s the first thing that angered me when I saw the TV reports on what happened to him,” Willis said. “But if you’re from here and see this team, you’d know he’s anything but a statistic. He was loved, … he has a lot of friends and a wonderful family.”
“If anything good has come from the situation, it’s that the players grew from it — they now realize life is fragile,” he said. “I saw immediate growth as soon as that happened … that’s the only positive to come from this.”
Willis often thinks about how Warner would react to the football team’s success this season.
“I know if he were here today, he’d be enjoying this more than anyone else,” he said. “Justin would be happier for everyone else than he’d be for himself.”