Nolan Epps wasn’t trying to make a statement. He was, simply, acting on instinct and the certainty that he was making the right choice.
The Bay Shore senior wide receiver was only a few days removed from a 12-catch, 137-yard performance against Connetquot on Sept. 15 when he was awarded the team’s impact belt, given each week to the player who made the biggest difference on the field. He didn’t keep it. Instead, Epps handed it to teammate Kenneth Eleazer, whose mother had passed away earlier that month.
Eleazer, an offensive lineman, hadn’t missed a single practice and also played in the game against the Thunderbirds, a decision that Epps said was bigger than football and warranted the accolade.
“It was natural,” Epps said. “[Eleazer] still came, he fought no matter what, like nothing happened. I felt like he deserved it.”
Eleazer took the belt, fighting back tears at the unexpected gesture. He’d considered taking time away from football, but opted to continue playing after talking to the coaching staff and added that earning the belt helped him be sure he’d made the right choice.
“I look up to [Nolan] and him giving me the belt made me believe the team was really there for me,” Eleazer said. “So I knew I had to be there for them, too.”
It wasn’t always easy for Eleazer to keep playing. Every snap was a challenge, but the game was a reprieve from everything else he had to deal with and, when things got difficult, he said he remembered that Epps and his team believed in him.
That made all the difference.
“Every time I went to practice or played in games, I felt the love,” Eleazer said. “That made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
Epps’ decision to honor his teammate helped shape Bay Shore’s entire season as the Marauders were no longer playing for just the final score.
They were playing to support Eleazer and the comaraderie both on and off the field helped him navigate some of the darkest moments of his life.
“The team rallied around Kenny,” coach Mike Brown said. “It says a lot about [Nolan’s] character. A 17-year-old doesn’t always have that type of feeling and to think of doing it is absolutely incredible.”
Bay Shore’s season didn’t end perfectly, falling to 46-13 to Longwood in the final game of the year, but for Epps and Eleazer, the bond they created this fall is one they’ll always share. No matter what they face going forward, whether it’s on the gridiron or not, Epps and Eleazer know they’ve got a teammate for life.
“We’re going to be close no matter what,” Epps said. “If anybody needs something, they’re going to have somebody there for them.”