From the moment of silence before Friday's Northport-Ward Melville football game in East Setauket to the moments of reflection afterward, the tragic death of Shoreham-Wading River football player Tom Cutinella on Wednesday clearly was on everyone's mind.
"It's still there. It's so sad. He was such a nice kid," Northport running back/linebacker James Gerdvil said.
Ward Melville's Eddie Munoz, who is injured and did not dress for the game, was a friend of Tom Cutinella and his younger brother Kevin. Munoz and Kevin played on the same summer lacrosse team and their families traveled together on lacrosse weekends, with Tom going along to watch his brother.
"When I found out, I was very choked up," Munoz said softly. "It was hard to realize what had happened. It was upsetting."
Gerdvil said he met Cutinella a few times at football combines. "What we did before the game was a sign of respect for his family," he said. "All our prayers must go out to them."
What Northport and Ward Melville did was gather at midfield, facing an American flag that was at half-staff, for the playing of the national anthem by the Ward Melville band. Teams traditionally stand on opposite sidelines for "The Star-Spangled Banner.''
The teams also listened to a tribute read by the school's public address announcer, which included a reference to Cutinella as "a young man of impeccable character," and observed a moment of silence. They then shook hands and embraced en masse before returning to their sidelines for the start of the game.
"There are things in life more important than football," said Ward Melville coach Chris Boltrek, who brought 30 of his players to the Thursday night vigil at Shoreham-Wading River High School to pay tribute to the Cutinella family (Tom's father, Frank, is a Ward Melville graduate who played on the school's only Rutgers Cup-winning team in 1987). "The vigil and what we did today symbolizes that the Long Island football family is very tight."
Munoz was among the nearly 200 football players representing several Suffolk County high schools who donned their football jerseys and, linked arm in arm, lined up around the Shoreham-Wading River football field Thursday night.
Ward Melville quarterback Jeff Towle also attended the vigil and noted, "It was important, as a Long Island football family, to be there. It was great to see all those teams coming together and showing respect."
Northport coach Kip Lukralle said, "I haven't stopped thinking about what happened. But football really is a special game, especially because there is a family point to it. You might want to beat each other on the field, but it isn't beyond the players to shake hands before the game and be a part of showing our respect and sympathy for the Shoreham players and their families."
Even in the worst of times, Boltrek observed, "Football can bring us together."