SHARON HILL >> When Academy Park lines up for its first offensive series Friday at Knight Park, there will be one noticeable absence on the field.
To honor a late teammate and friend, the Knights will take the field without a starting center. And they will graciously receive a penalty for delay of game.
Jaion Smith was the center on last year’s Academy Park team that captured the District 1 Class 5A title. Smith’s life was cut short in a car accident in June, days before Academy Park’s senior class was set to graduate. Smith would have been one of the top returning offensive linemen in the county this year.
Prior to kickoff against Pennsbury, the Knights will hold a moment of silence.
Not enough time has passed for Academy Park to fully comprehend and move on from the tragedy that took place on the night of June 4, a three-car crash on I-95 that killed Smith and injured six others. It’s still fresh in the minds of coaches and players, and will be for some time.
“I know they still remember it and it’s hard not to… but they’ve been good,” Academy Park coach Jason Vosheski said. “Nobody has really been dwelling on it, at least from what I’ve seen in practice. They’ve been focused out here.
But I know they still think about him, and they want to play out the season for him.
“In reality, once everything starts, you don’t forget but it’s not a super huge thing that you’re going to dwell on. I don’t think anyone fully contemplates what’s going on until they become our age and are able to reflect on it. You wonder what would could have been different, what ifs, and stuff like that.”
Throughout the offseason, Vosheski said, he has observed a team that has found a way to pull together. The tragedy that took the life of a bright, soft-spoken and talented young man, one of their closest boys, has brought the Knights closer.
“We’ve always been a family,” senior linebacker Issa Fox said, “and now it’s like an even bigger family.”
Vosheski and his coaches form a strong bond with their players every season, but nothing could prepare them for a tragedy that shakes the very core of a locker room. In the aftermath of Smith’s death, Vosheski’s message to his players was straightforward: We’re here for you.
“All we really did was, we told them that our door is open,” Vosheski said. “We said if you feel a certain way, come talk to us. Whether it’s us, parents or other family members, talk to somebody.”
It would’ve been acceptable had a few players decided not to suit up and play this fall, but the loss of a friend has galvanized every player on the roster, from the varsity team on down.
“It’s had the total opposite effect,” Vosheski said. “It’s more like … we’re going to practice and play for him. We don’t push that, either way. We’re not here to tell the kids how they should feel or think. It’s not like we’re saying, oh, you’ve got to play and that’s that. It’s more of the opposite. They want to practice, they want to be here.”
Once the Knights shifted their attention to the 2017 season in the summer, it was the job of the coaches to make sure everyone gets on the right page. Football is a distraction.
“I believe that, no matter what’s going on in your life, this has to be an escape. No matter what bad things are happening — and bad stuff happens to everybody — when you come here you have got to kind of let things go,”
Vosheski said. “If you want to think about it or dwell about it when you leave, that’s your choice. That’s up to you, and that’s something that we understand. We want you to remember him and keep him in your memory.”
The Knights are one of Delco’s top football teams and 16th in the PAPrepLive Preseason Top 20. They will contend for a Del Val League and District 1 title, and intend to get back to the state tournament and win it all.
“This has just brought us closer even more,” Fox said.
Senior Billy Martin will take Smith’s spot on the offensive line. It’s a job that Martin intends to fulfil with pride.
“Filling his spot, it’s a lot of responsibility,” Martin said. “The way he did it and how he played, it was so good. I have to try and fill that. It’ll be hard. I have to try and be better and make him proud.”
That could be the team motto of the 2017 Knights. Make Jaion proud.
“We all just have to play with a chip on shoulder,” Martin said. “We have to win it all for him.”
And that’s the best way to honor Smith’s memory.
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