FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A hundred or so visitors huddled around the New England Football exhibit on the third floor of the Hall at Patriot Place, cell phones and point-and-click’s firing away, and not a single one was about to bother Charlene Larracey as she made her way to the edge of the podium and stared at the Holliston High football jersey that was hanging front and center, amongst the several dozen honoring recent New England high school champions.
Clutching a black pocket-sized digital camera in her right palm, she fought back the tears welling up in her eyes with long sighs and sniffles, as she repeatedly pressed the flash. The Panthers’ red No. 73 jersey –- the one worn by her son Joey until his untimely death in 2008, the one since retired by the school, the one Charlene has worn to every home game the last three seasons, and the one that hung in the window of Charlene and husband Jim’s bedroom every day until this past December 4 –- was now in the spotlight.
Pinned to the left breast of the jersey was the last picture of Joey in that red No. 73 uniform before he tragically collapsed during a scrimmage, and was later pronounced dead at the age of 16, in the 2008 preseason. Attached to the picture was a white ribbon bearing the hand-written names “Joey” and “Timmy”, the latter honoring the late Tim O’Connell, a 10-year-old honorary captain who succumbed to leukemia less than 48 hours following Joey’s death.
All of it was a bit surreal just then, and all of it had Charlene struggling to keep it all together.
“It’s very emotional, very emotional,” Charlene said moments later, choking up. “We’re very proud, very honored. We are very blessed.”
Added Jim, “Joey loved being a part of the Holliston football program. And I think they loved him back, so I think that’s why it’s up there. Joey would have been proud of all of these guys.”
This was an afternoon of rejoice stretching into the early evening, celebrating the Panthers’ Division 3A Super Bowl victory at Gillette Stadium over Cardinal Spellman last Dec. 4 with photo-op’s, a few words from former New England Patriot Steve DeOssie, and a ring presentation that would bring closure to all the group’s struggles since that fateful August day.
Players dressed up in shirts and specially-designed black and red-checkered ties, and posed for a group photo underneath where Larracey’s jersey hung, and again with their rings inside of the Raytheon Theater on the third floor. Head coach Todd Kiley is never one to conceal his heart, and in an emotional speech to his players inside the theater, he let it all hang out.
Choking up as he addressed the team, he spoke of how bad he wanted to get back to Gillette, to get Joey’s jersey hung at the Hall, after losing handily in the 2009 Super Bowl.
“We all know you can be the best team in the world, but you need breaks and bounces to happen,” Kiley said. “So I prayed that we’d get that opportunity again, to get his jersey up in the Hall. And obviously with a lot of his help, a lot of Timmy’s help, and a lot of other angels that are up there helping us out, we were able to get that done. So we…that’s one of my proudest moments, being able to take a picture out there in front of that jersey. As a team.”
Players echoed those same sentiments following the ring presentation.
“There are no words to describe that, really,” said senior linebacker and co-captain Kevin Curry, an ESPNBoston All-State selection. “I’m speechless, as I’m sure most of my teammates are. For us to get here last year and not be able to put that jersey up for his senior year, and the way we wanted to end it, for it to finally be up there, it’s a special moment.”
Included among the ring recipients was Joey’s younger brother Daniel, a 16-year-old junior who doesn’t play football, but comes out with the team during their most crucial moments –- such as running out onto the field at Gillette with an oversized red flag with the Panthers’ logo and Joey’s No. 73.
Wearing a short-sleeved white dress shirt with the checkered tie, black low-tops and a black oval-shaped keychain with the inscription “JL 73” hanging off the belt loop of his cargo pants, Daniel continues to draw inspiration from his late brother every day. Joey’s white No. 73 jersey hangs next to his bedroom window –- “Right when I open my shade, light comes through it,” he said. “Every day I wake up, and it’s the first thing I look at.”
Daniel remembered the first time he saw the jersey at Patriot Place, the day the Panthers beat the Cardinals and head coach Todd Kiley immediately brought it over to the third-floor exhibit. And this afternoon, the emotions the image draws remained strong.
“It’s amazing,” Daniel said. “I can’t even put it into words. Just how this community has just come together so much over the past few years, and how everything is for him now, it’s so amazing. I couldn’t ask for anything better, this is so cool seeing all this finally happening.”
He added with a chuckle, “I know that sounds redundant.”
Joey’s memory never fades too much these days, neither the what-an-honor nor the what-could-have-been.
“It’s very bittersweet,” Charlene said, welling up. “It’s very…hard. There’s not a minute that we don’t miss him…but you know, my biggest fear was that he would be forgotten. And this just helps prove that he won’t be, and the kids have helped show us that. They’ve been a tremendous amount of support for Jim and I, and Daniel.
“Sometimes it’s a double-edged sword, because it’s a reminder that he’s not here. But yet, you don’t want to be forgotten, so people still…we still get calls, cards, ‘How are you guys?’, ‘You know if there’s anything I can do’, ‘We think of Joey every day’. And that means the world to us.”
All of it is enough to make Daniel wonder whether baseball is the only sport he wants to take up. Kiley says he’s left the door open for him to join, but that “it’s up to him”. Daniel wondered aloud if he’d be able to wear his brother’s number, the same one that hangs in his room.
“I haven’t asked, but I’m just making the assumption. Hopefully they do,” Daniel said. “I hope they do. If not…still, I mean, going to the games is the most fun you can have. That’s an absolutely great crowd.”
Of course, you figure, they’d make an exception. They’ve gone so far already.