- Scott Barboza, ESPN Staff Writer
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Any defending champion has troubles it must face while trying to remain on top. Central Catholic football can’t hide from anybody following their win over Xaverian at Gillette Stadium in last December’s Division 1 state championship game. Everybody from their Merrimack Valley Conference rivals to any potential playoff opponent in Division 1 North will be looking to be the team to knock off the Raiders, every week.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Yet, for all the pressures real or perceived that Central’s players might feel this season, nothing will compare to the feeling of loss in the pit of their stomachs they’ll feel. They’re missing a brother.
Rising senior defensive back Will Wheeler was looking forward to another season with his teammates when he died suddenly in his sleep the Saturday before Massachusetts high school football teams started their preseason practice sessions. The 17-year-old resident of Atkinson, N.H. and three-sport athlete at Central had no apparent health problems at the time of his death.
The Raiders began practicing the Monday following Wheeler’s death.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Central head coach Chuck Adamopoulos said.
The day of Wheeler’s funeral coincided with the first day that two-a-day practice sessions were allowed by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. It began with a 6:30 a.m. practice, followed by a bus ride to New Hampshire for the services. On the ride back to Lawrence, Adamopoulos gave his team two options: either they could call it a day or get back on the field for another practice.
There was no dissent among the ranks in their reply.
“It’s an escape for all us, to keep our heads out of that tragic, tragic situation,” senior captain and ESPN Boston preseason All-State selection Michael Balsamo said. “We just rallied together and went to work.”
The second session – as Adamopoulos termed it – wasn’t their best. But he learned a lot from the trying circumstances his team faced that day.
“We were cooked at the end of that day, and that goes for the kids and me and the coaching staff,” Adamopoulos said. “But we were there for each other.”
A backup at safety primarily and a special teams contributor last season for Cental, Wheeler would likely have enjoyed a greater role on the defense this season. His younger brother, Shawn, is a sophomore at Central who’s also on the football team.
Greater than that, Wheeler’s personality is what his friend and teammate Jorge Elias misses about his presence at practice.
“There were times when he’d mess up coverage on a play, and he’d just laugh,” the senior captain said. “He just had that personality that made everybody relax.”
He added, “We’re here, as a team, for his family. We want to make sure that they know that we’re here for them. We’re doing this for them. They’re always in our minds, always in our hearts; we’ll never forget about them and we’ll never forget about Will.”
Central returns 11 of its 22 starters from last year’s championship team. The Raiders also have the advantage of returning starters at several key positions, including quarterback Michael Milano and inside linebacker Markus Edmunds, as well as Balsmo (running back/safety) and Elias (guard/defensive tackle).
“We know what we can do,” Balsamo said of the expectations place on this year’s squad. “We’ve got great coaches that work us really, really hard during practice and we have the talent to make those plays on the field. The standard is really, really high.”
That’s the challenge the Raiders face: keep winning despite grieving. It’s something Elias and his fellow seniors have taken to heart.
“During the summer we worked so hard because we know what it took from last season – the hard work and the leadership and everybody that stood up last year was incredible,” Elias said. “Now, we just have to get our boys together and step up and fill in the spots where we lost our key players.”
It’s found in the character of their actions. They’re a family, gathered around the sport of football. It’s something they’ll never forget, just as they’ll never forget their teammate.
“We just needed to get away from those emotions for a while and let them drain out,” Elias said of the decision to practice on the day of Wheeler’s funeral. “I think we were all unstable, but then you have to let it go. To get back to football, you’re on the gridiron, you have to focus on your teammates and what’s at hand.
“Life goes on, unfortunately, you’ve just got to work because the season’s coming up and that’s what Will would have wanted from us.”
Central opens its title defense tonight (7 p.m.) against cross-city rival Lawrence.