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Saturday, August 20, 2011
Updated: September 16, 5:37 PM ET
Police: 4 players killed in N.J. crash news services

LINWOOD, N.J. -- Grief shrouded the tree-lined neighborhoods around Mainland Regional High School on Sunday, a day after four high school football players were killed and four were injured when their SUV crashed on Garden State Parkway on their way to have brunch with some teammates.

Students, parents, community members, and football team players donned in game jerseys turned out to mourn their loss at an evening vigil in misty weather. Some of the crash survivors were among the more than 3,000 who attended the vigil at the school stadium.

Photos of the four teens killed in the crash were placed at the center of the football field, drawing the attention of the attendees while speakers discussed the teens' accomplishments on and off the field. Many in the crowd cried and hugged throughout the vigil.

He was the boy who made everybody smile.

- Denise Khoury, mother of 15-year old Dean Khoury, who died in Saturday's crash

"Right when it happened, I was in total shock, I was just praying it wasn't true," said Joey Geiger, 16, a member of the football team. "Every single play (this season) is now for them."

Chris Hickey of Linwood said her daughter Lauren, a junior at the school, was good friends with two of the teens killed in the crash.

"I don't even know what to tell her. I don't even know how to make sense of it," Hickey said.

Earlier in the day, the football field was still. A solitary jogger looped the track. Tackling dummies in the nearby practice field stood undisturbed.

Superintendent Thomas Baruffi said he hoped the candlelight vigil would give people a place to come together and grieve. He said he has been through student deaths before, but never multiple deaths at the same time.

"They're always tragic," he said. "You know there's nothing you can say or do that's enough."

Under New Jersey law, drivers under 18 generally are not allowed to carry more than one passenger unless a parent or guardian is in the vehicle. The eight boys in the SUV ranged in age from 15 to 17.

State police continued to investigate and did not release details Sunday on how fast the SUV was moving before the crash or whether the occupants were wearing seatbelts.

The teenagers were on their way to meet other players at the Old Country Buffet in Mays Landing, one of several places players often go to eat.

Sgt. Julian Castellanos, a state police spokesman, said the driver, 17-year-old Casey Brenner of Northfield, apparently lost control of the vehicle about 11:45 a.m. Saturday as it went around a crest on the parkway and came upon heavy traffic.

The vehicle overturned several times, ejecting two passengers, one of whom was struck by a passing car, Castellanos said.

All eight teenagers played for the school in Linwood, where filling bleachers at Friday night games is an autumn pastime. The Mustangs have won six state championships, including five since Bob Coffey became head coach in 1986.

Before the crash, perhaps the greatest trial for the team came when it had to forfeit four games last year for using a player who transferred from another school and suited up without all the proper paperwork in place.

The victims' teammates donned game jerseys for the first time with their names stitched above the numbers to attend the evening vigil. And they expected to be together for funerals in the coming days.

Coffey said he'd look for direction from his players, but expected that practices would move ahead -- in some form. But two scrimmages scheduled for this week were canceled.

"My gut feeling is that we live for the moment," he said. "As a coach and kids, you've got to take care of what's in front of you right now."

Brenner was killed, as were Dean Khoury of Linwood, 15; and two 16-year-olds, Edgar Bozzi of Somers Point and Nicholas Conner of Northfield.

Coffey said Brenner was competing to be the starting tight end, Bozzi was likely to get playing time as a linebacker, Khoury was working hard after Coffey nearly kicked him off the team for missing a practice, and Conner was one of the team's most enthusiastic special-teams players.

"All four of them were so happy, doing so well," said Coffey, who lives a few blocks from the high school in a spacious house where his players often gather.

The superintendent said the four players who died were good students, good athletes and well-liked.

Linwood, Northfield and Somers Point -- bedroom communities to Atlantic City -- were quiet Sunday. The school serves all three.

At Khoury's family's home in Linwood, the driveway and street were packed with relatives' cars. Many in the family were crying, including his mother, Denise Khoury.

"He was the boy who made everybody smile," she said.

The injured included two Linwood residents, 17-year-old Jacob Smith and 15-year-old Kenneth Randall, and two 16-year-old Northfield residents, Kyle Beattie and Alex Denafo.

Coffey said everyone except Smith was home from the hospital by Sunday afternoon, and Smith was expected home soon.

At lunchtime, a half-dozen high school students, friends of the deceased, were eating at Linwood Bagel, across from the school stadium. No one was giggling or guffawing as they ate, and the students didn't want to speak to a news reporter.

Baruffi said he hoped the tragedy would make the school community stronger and closer. But "this is never a sacrifice you want to make," he said.

The team's first game is scheduled for Sept. 9, three days before the school year begins for Mainland's 1,600 students.