STAMFORD, Conn. – The death toll in the last three-plus years for players connected with high school football teams in Stamford is four. The number of lives ruined is much more.
The accidental shooting death of former Stamford star running back Marcus Dixon on Thursday was the latest tragedy to befall a football player from the city. Less than a month earlier, Westhill graduate Peter Cernansky, who graduated in June, died from injuries suffered in a skateboarding accident in Vermont. Another former Westhill player died in the spring.
The string of tragedies began in 2009, when Westhill football player Daniel Villeda, 16, was killed in an accidental shooting. Franklin Emilcar, 20 at the time of the shooting, pleaded guilty in 2011 to first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Franklin Emilcar played football at Westhill. His younger brother, Zack, was Villeda’s friend. Villeda visited Emilcar’s home on the night of the shooting, which occurred while Franklin Emilcar and Villeda were rough-housing.
That's four deaths in three years among young men who were just getting started. It’s senseless, tragic and heart-wrenching for families, coaches and the community.
“It’s not just the football team,’’ said Kevin Jones, Dixon’s former coach at Stamford High. “It’s a large city. We’re no different than the rest of the world. A football team is a microcosm of society with people from all sorts of backgrounds. There will be tragedy in all walks of life. But when you’re a good high school player like Marcus, a spotlight gets put on you because you’re a good story. When you lose someone like Marcus, you lose that beacon of hope for the other guys that were like him growing up. It’s so heartbreaking.”
When it comes to coping with these tragedies, no manual tells coaches how to make sense of these tragedies for their players. There are empty words to say, shoulders to cry on and memories to keep, but few clues on how to cope.
There are also lessons to learn. “It’s a life lesson,’’ Westhill coach Frank Marcucio said about the death of Cernansky. Marcucio is also an EMT worker. “Unfortunately, I have experience with this and I’ve had to deal with this stuff before. It has helped me guide the kids along, but it has hit them hard.”
Maybe the football players can learn. Maybe we can all learn. “The one thing that comes from this is to realize how fragile life is,’’ Jones said. “The part that’s so hard with Marcus is he was a friend to everybody. It always seem like it’s the guys who were popular. It’s just so hard to accept.”