In first game following Abe Romero's passing, Knights look to find balance between grief, football and normal life

·5 min read

LAS CRUCES – Friday is supposed to be Organ Mountain High’s biggest rivalry game of the year, but there are no signs, streamers or banners in the school hallways about beating Centennial.

Instead of messages of school spirit and game information on the electronic billboard in front of the school, there’s a photo of Abraham Romero in his Knights football jersey with his year of birth and year of death inscribed underneath.

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Football players passed Romero’s empty locker when they arrived for football practice Monday morning after the 17-year-old senior passed away Saturday following a weeks-long battle in the intensive care unit at El Paso Children’s Hospital. In a normal week, head coach Steve Castille would have broken down the opponent’s film with his players and discussed the game plan for Friday’s game. This week, after taking a moment to mourn their lost teammate and friend, Castille gave his team the option to stay in the locker room and talk or go outside and try to do something – anything – football-related.

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“I told (our team) we’re more unprepared than normal,” Castille said. “We’re getting ready for a rival who is more complicated than most and a better football team than anyone we’ve played this year, and we’re probably less prepared than we’ve ever been.”

But Organ Mountain still wants to play Centennial Friday night at 7 p.m.

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The Knights are determined to play their first game since Romero passed away after spending weeks in a medically induced coma – largely because the team knows that’s what Romero would have wanted – as the team learns to find the balance between grief, football and normal life. Castille said the team voted last week on whether or not they wanted to cancel or postpone the Centennial game after Romero’s condition was downgraded from stable to critical, but the players almost instantly voted to play.

But even though the Knights will still play their district opener Friday, there has been nothing normal about this week.

Five of Romero’s teammates will be pallbearers at his funeral services the next morning, and a viewing will be held at Baca’s Funeral Chapels in the hours before Organ Mountain’s Friday-night game. Castille said Wednesday the team was still determining how best to honor Romero and pay their respects before the game. The team will attend funeral services just over 12 hours after Friday’s game ends.

“The mood is, I think these guys are trying to approach it the right way – of protecting the family and taking care of each other and making sure their brothers are going and doing the right thing,” Castille said. “But that mood can shift in a hurry. There’s just so many variables right now. It’s tough. It’s a really tough week. It’s the end of the nine weeks (grading period), teachers are giving tests, rivalry week, and these guys don’t care about any of that crap right now. It’s just not on their minds.”

Players have grieved in their own ways. Some have cried, some have hugged their teammates and some have laughed remembering better days. Castille said he told his team a player isn’t a jerk because they laugh or smile and someone isn’t soft because they cry. And he has no idea what product the team will put on the field Friday night.

“You don’t know how this will affect everybody. They could come out and lay an egg or they could come out and play the greatest game in the history of football,” Castille said. “We won’t determine that until kickoff. It’s such a weird thing to carry with you. How much can you play on emotion, anyway?”

Centennial head coach Aaron Ocampo reached out to Castille offering support and asking if the Hawks can offer anything to the Knights as they grieve, but he respects if Organ Mountain players and coaches would prefer to lean on each other. And he expects the Knights to come out and throw their best punch, because it’s the spirit he saw Romero play with on film.

Centennial will wear helmet decals with Romero’s initials and jersey number. Many Centennial players also attended a vigil held Sunday evening after Romero passed.

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“We’ve got our normal activities this week with our rivalry week, but we’re making sure we honor Abe’s legacy with everything we do,” Ocampo said. “Sunday is a work day for us, and as I’m doing some of the work I’m thinking, ‘Shoot, we just lost a 17-year-old kid.’ My daughter is his age. There were just a lot of thoughts going on in my head.”

Castille said there is no playbook or game plan to lead a group of teenagers through a tragedy like this, and opposing coaches can only offer prayers and support, should the Knights ask for it. But he’s appreciative of the overwhelming outpour of community support over the last three weeks – ranging from the city’s four major high schools collectively raising more than $20,000 for Romero and his family to students dropping by the Knights’ locker room Monday to offer condolences.

But Friday night won’t feel the same without Romero.

“I’m going to love Abe forever. He’s going to leave a mark in my brain and my heart, and it won’t ever go away,” Castille said. “But we’ll rally, and we’ll grieve in his memory.”

This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Organ Mountain looks to find balance between grief, football and normal life