Red Lion senior wide receiver Kendrick Boyd-Gillespie was on vacation when he first got word of the death of teammates Nick Mankin and Stone Hill over the summer.
He immediately called quarterback Dalton Grove to confirm the news. The two talked about the tragic car crash that took the lives of Mankin and Hill on the night of June 16. Still, they refused to believe that two of their teammates and two of their best friends were no longer with them.
Almost three months later, they still don't want to believe it.
"I was like, 'No this isn't real. This isn't happening,'" Boyd-Gillespie said about the accident.
"I couldn't believe it and didn't want to believe it," Grove added. "I was very, very upset. To lose two teammates like that, they were our family and good friends, and I still can't believe it to this day."
"You can't replace them": Throughout the summer months, the Red Lion football team and the entire community grieved. This season was supposed to be a year that continued to build off of everything good that the 2014 team accomplished.
Under the guidance of head coach Jesse Shay, the Lions went from a four-win team in his first year in 2013, to a six-win team last season. That was good enough for second place in the York-Adams League Division I standings and a berth in the District 3-AAAA playoffs. That meant that 2015 was set up for a year of potential greatness for Red Lion, and both Mankin and Hill were expected to have a big hand in that.
Hill was a starter on the varsity team last year at offensive guard and Hill was a two-year starter at linebacker and played on the baseball team. Both were set to be seniors this fall and Hill would've been a captain.
"You can't replace them," Shay said at practice on Tuesday. "You can put new players in those positions, but we have to remember that this is high school sports and the point of high school sports is much bigger than the product we put on the field and the score on that board at the end of the game. So, you don't replace what these kids and what the coaching staff considers as part of a family. I look at each of these players as one of my sons, so you don't ever replace them."
Emotional return home: The tragic loss of Mankin and Hill set up an even more emotional season opener last Friday night. The Lions opened the season on the road with a 40-20 win against Hershey, but the absence of Mankin and Hill is still something that Boyd-Gillespie is trying to adjust to.
"Not seeing No. 46 (Hill) or No. 60 (Mankin) on the field, not seeing No. 46 right in front of me on defense, not seeing No. 60 blocking for the quarterback is very emotional," he said.
The opening win was the perfect way to honor Mankin and Hill, but this Friday night may be the real emotional test for Red Lion. Friday night's game against Manheim Township is the home opener for Red Lion, marking the first time the team will walk onto Horn Field since the death of its two teammates. Before the game begins, the Lions will commemorate Mankin and Hill by holding a moment of silence before kickoff, sure to add even more emotion to the game.
"It's going to make us want to work harder and push more," Boyd-Gillespie said. "Just knowing that they're there with us and knowing that we can do it for them, we're going to do it for them."
Bringing the team together: In the weeks and months since the car accident, the event brought the team closer together. The players and coaches used each other to let out their sadness, going through the grieving process as a team. They attended all the events following Mankin's and Hill's deaths together and it's made Shay realize even more, just how special each player is to him. Now, after every practice, he tells the players that he loves them, echoing the sentiment that he views them as more than just football players, but as his own children as well.
While Mankin and Hill won't be on the field in-person with the team, a part of them will still be part of every snap. Red Lion will honor the two former friends and players by wearing stickers on its helmets with the numbers "46" and "60" on them. Boyd-Gillespie will also recognize two of his best friends by having "Family" and both Mankin's and Hill's initials and numbers on his cleats this season. Grove said that when they were in the huddle last year, Mankin was always there for a good laugh or was always the first person to stick up for him when the opposition was talking trash, a voice that's noticeably missing.
"Do it for them": Once Friday's game against the Blue Streaks passes, things should get back to a more normal routine for the Lions, with no more "firsts" surrounding any of their games. But, that doesn't mean that each game won't come with added emotion, knowing that each time they take the field, they do so in honor of their two lost teammates.
"It brought us all a lot closer this summer," Grove said. "We were with each other every day, mourning, and all day long with each other, texting each other, calling each other, we became closer. We kept saying that this season would be for them and that we need to do it for them and that they're going to push us through this season. Whenever we're feeling down, or losing, just think of them and they're going to push us through this season."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com; follow on Twitter @P_Strohecker