Will Wheeler walked up to his younger brother, Shawn, and gave him a heartfelt hug. Central Catholic had captured the 2013 Division 1 state championship earlier that day and Will wanted nothing more than to cherish the moment with family and friends.
“I love you, Shawn,” he said. “Congratulations, buddy. I’ll see you at home.”
Then the Wheelers and a bunch of Will’s friends watched the replay of the game on TV. They celebrated after each touchdown, reliving the scene.
It was a perfect moment — a player everyone seemed to like, capping off one of the best days of his life.
That was the last competitive football game Will Wheeler ever played. Wheeler, 17, died in his sleep on Aug. 17 of natural causes. Now, every time the Raiders step on the field they have Will on their minds. No. 2 Central Catholic (2-0) will continue their quest for a repeat when they face scrappy No. 4 St. John’s Prep (2-0) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
“We want the other ring, but he wanted it more than us,” said Shawn Wheeler, 15. “We’re trying to put that in front of us and get him that other ring.”
Central Catholic coach Chuck Adamopoulos thought there was a mistake when he first heard the news. Will died as preseason practices began. The whole week was mentally torturous, and football was the main outlet for Will’s friends.
‘They owe it to themselves to play as hard as they can all the time, like he would.’
Adamopoulos said Wednesday it still hasn’t hit him that one of the team’s most charismatic, popular players has died.
“If he were a country he’d be Switzerland,” Adamopoulos said. “Everyone liked him. No one would ever say a bad word about him.”
Adamopoulos said he never uses Will as a topic for a motivational speech. Someone dying is much bigger than a football game. Using him as motivation wouldn’t be fair to Will or his family.
But although Will isn’t explicitly mentioned much, he’s in the team’s thoughts daily.
“We did talk to the guys about how they’re out here, and obviously Will would love to be here,” Adamopoulos said. “They owe it to themselves to play as hard as they can all the time, like he would.”
When Central Catholic’s captains lined up at midfield before the team’s home opener, they had an honorary captain by their side. Shawn Wheeler.
Captains Michael Balsamo and George Elias miss goofing around with Will every day. From sprinting around the building during winter track to manning the safety position in practice, their memories remain vivid. Shawn misses driving with his brother to New York, just the two of them, joking around and talking football.
Before every practice and every home game, the players pass by a photograph of Will in the locker room. During games they sport a W.W. on their helmets. They don’t have to say anything, but they’re all thinking the same thing. Let’s win this one for Will.
Saturday will be their toughest test yet. Prep’s first-year coach Brian St. Pierre is ensuring his team is ready for Central Catholic.
“We’ve been an underdog in every game we’ve played and that’ll continue onto this week,” St. Pierre said. “We relish the role.”
While St. Pierre’s Eagles are motivated to stage the upset, the Raiders have something — and someone — more to play for, as they look to enact revenge on a team that beat them last season.
“Everyone rallies around him,” Shawn Wheeler said. “They use him as an inspiration.”
. . .
No. 6 Natick visits Acton-Boxboro on Friday as Nick Olson looks to continue his strong start . . . Defensive-minded No. 12 Tewksbury will try to slow down No. 5 Everett and contain running back Nick Orekoya on Friday . . . It’s opening weekend for most NEPSAC schools. Belmont Hill faces BB&N in Cambridge and Milton Academy takes on St. Sebastian’s in Needham, two of eight games that highlight the first weekend of Independent School League football. In the Evergreen League, Pingree hosts Portsmouth Abbey and Dexter travels to Connecticut to face Hyde.
Trevor Hass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TrevorHass.