At Suitland and Northwest High Schools, Learning to Cope in the Wake of Death

By Alan Goldenbach and Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Beneath the rising Saturday morning sun, an apparition struck Jason Johnson in midstep as he zigzagged through cones during the first football practice of the year. The image was clear to the Suitland senior. So, too was the voice, and even the aura exuded by a man who came to personify not just the Rams' football program, but the school's overall identity.

Nick Lynch, however, was not feverishly leading practice at Suitland as he did the past 13 seasons. Lynch was killed in an automobile accident Dec. 31, and, for the first time, several teenagers stepped onto a field and did not hear the voice, see the face or feel the tough love Lynch showered on a generation of students that won 117 games and two state championships under his direction.

"I would see him as I was going around the cones," Johnson said. "I was seeing it. I was hearing it. I was feeling it. I was getting tired, but I kept hearing his voice, like, 'Jason, don't let it get you down.'

"Football is my coping mechanism, and I take that and keep his voice in my head."

Similar sentiments were being felt at Northwest High in Germantown, where the Jaguars took the field for a full practice for the first time since Edwin "Dek" Miller, 16, died July 16, four days after collapsing during a voluntary workout. Miller's mother, Nahdi Nah, delivered lunch for the Jaguars' coaching staff that would have instructed her son. Nah didn't want to stay long, but told the coaches that while her son may not be in a Jaguars uniform, she will remain a part of this football family.

"Dek loved playing football," Northwest Coach Mark Maradei said. "It was his passion and by continuing to be a part of it this season -- or for as long as she wants to be -- she has found a way to share in and extend that passion even though he isn't here."

The beginning of football practice at public schools across Maryland on Saturday also marked a part of the healing process for players at Suitland and Northwest, where memories of both Lynch and Miller are so linked with the game.

"How many times did I walk through that [practice field] gate -- two, three hundred times?" said Suitland Coach Ed Shields, an assistant to Lynch the past four seasons who began his coaching career at Northwestern the same year Lynch took over at Suitland. "Every time from now on, I'm going to think that we're missing a good man. Stepping back on this field, that's what really brings it back.

"The public is eight months removed, but we aren't eight months removed."

Lynch died after last football season ended and the Rams turned in their equipment. Even though Lynch was a ubiquitous presence in the school, the Rams never had to step onto a football field since then without him. As Saturday approached, they mulled their new reality.

"It was tough in bed last night getting ready for this. I kept waking up," senior Keith Brown said. "I was thinking about when I was a sophomore and he sent me home from two-a-days because I wasn't working hard enough. He made me a better man, a tougher man."

Said Johnson: "When I got in [to the gymnasium before practice] and he wasn't there, it hit me. You get used to somebody and you get used to a routine. But when you turn on the lights and start doing roll call, man, that's when it hurt. It hit home to me that he wasn't there."

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