MARYSVILLE — It was just a football game, and a mourning community reveled in its simplicity.
More than 3,000 fans gathered at Quil Ceda Stadium. They cheered. They watched a bunch of teenagers play their hearts out. They laughed, high-fived and hugged.
For a few hours Friday night, Marysville-Pilchuck High School was distracted from grief.
It was just a football game, not a tragedy. They didn’t have to focus on the horror of a week ago, when 15-year-old Jaylen Fryberg opened fire in the school cafeteria and shot five classmates before killing himself. Three of the victims have died, with news of the latest fatality, 14-year-old Shaylee Chuckulnaskit, spreading quietly through the stadium about two hours before kickoff.
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Her death served as a sobering reminder that this wasn’t a night of healing. This community has many months of coping left and many more tears to shed. But when the Tomahawks’ game against Meadowdale began, some of those grieving were provided with a rallying point. The team in red and white suddenly represented the resilience and strength of the entire high school.
“I think healing is going to take an awful long time,” Marysville School District Superintendent Becky Berg said. “Instead, I think the night is about being together as a community and letting kids be kids.”
The kids were definitely kids — joyous and energetic and athletic. The Tomahawks fed off the crowd, managed their conflicting emotions and won 55-34. They played just as their coach hoped they would, relying on routine and not becoming overwhelmed by their desire to do something positive for their school.
“Control your emotions, so that it doesn’t drain you,” Marysville-Pilchuck coach Brandon Carson told his team all week. “You’ll feel the energy of the crowd, and it’ll feel like you’re walking on air. But you have to relax.”
You could feel the spirit when the Tomahawks went to the locker room seven minutes before kickoff for one final team meeting. They received a standing ovation as they exited. Two minutes later, they ran back on the field, and the ovation was even louder.
The cheerleaders and other students wore black Marysville-Pilchuck T-shirts with “#MPstrong” printed on the back. Some fans in the stands carried roses. Others wore ribbons with pictures of the victims.
But after a moment of silence, it was just a football game. It was appropriate for this community. In his 22 years living in the area, district athletic director Greg Erickson has learned one thing about Marysville-Pilchuck supporters: They always come.
Through bad weather, teacher strikes and losing seasons, Marysville-Pilchuck has received great fan support. On football Fridays, if the Tomahawks have a home game, the community will be there.
“The key word is unity,” Erickson said. “We come together to hug, cry, laugh, cheer. The power of sport is pretty incredible, what it does for people.”
Tony Hatch is the father of Drew Hatch, who plays wide receiver and defensive back for Marysville-Pilchuck. He wore a black M-P sweatshirt with a touching tribute to his son written on the back: “Some people have to wait their entire lives to meet their favorite player. I raised mine.”
The past week has been “a roller coaster” for Drew, his dad said. Fryberg, the shooter, was his cousin. He is related to or friends with everyone involved in the tragedy.
“He’s happy one minute and crying the next,” Tony Hatch said of his son. “He and Jaylen, they grew up as brothers. Their birthdays are one day apart, and they shared birthday parties growing up. Our hearts are broken.”
Hatch only wanted Drew, an affable kid and team leader, to have fun Friday. As he watched from his seat near the 50-yard line, he observed his son catch a 46-yard touchdown on a halfback pass from Austin Joyner. He leapt and screamed in celebration.
It was just a football game, but Marysville-Pilchuck needed it.
“We’re a long way from healing,” Tony Hatch said. “We’ve got a long road still. But for a three-hour period, I just wanted to see a smile on their faces.”
They smiled plenty Friday night. They celebrated big plays. They allowed the community a reprieve from tragedy.
In the days ahead, there will be more pain for the students to deal with, more funerals to attend and more questioning of why this had to happen to their school. But it seems the community is united, and on Friday night, on the football field, that unity produced an amazing result.
After halftime, the players ran through a sign held up by the cheerleaders. It fit the moment perfectly. It read:
We are one and We are MP STRONG