BLOOMFIELD — One tragedy already had struck over the summer. Jamar Johnson, who was looking forward to his sophomore season at Central Connecticut and had played with so many of these Bloomfield High football players, died following a car crash on Blue Hills Avenue.
"We dedicated our season to Jamar," coach Ty Outlaw said Sunday as he prepared his Warhawks for the Class S state quarterfinal playoff game against top-ranked Capital Prep/Classical Magnet/Achievement First. "We bring out Jamar's jersey, No. 52, every game, home and away."
So No. 52 will be there Tuesday night at Dillon Stadium?
"Absolutely," Outlaw said softly.
Yes, one tragedy already had struck Bloomfield, and now there is this. On Nov. 21, Tarence "T.J." Mitchell, one of Outlaw's senior captains and the state leader with eight interceptions, was arrested and accused of fatally stabbing a 27-year-old friend. The heartache for two families has been great. The headlines have been salacious. The emotional impact on a high school football program is undeniable.
Mitchell, according to court documents, told police that he had a two-year friendship with Ronald Taylor and that Taylor had supplied him with alcohol and marijuana, and that there had been sexual relations. He told police Taylor had called him a "Bloomfield gay football player" on Facebook, and when he was unsuccessful in distancing himself from Taylor, the older man came to his family home for a meeting that he said "wouldn't end well."
It didn't. Mitchell, held on $1 million bond, is charged with stabbing Taylor five times in the back with a steak knife.
Stories like this do not remain the province of the local media. It was all over national media websites. For much of a day, it remained among the top headlines on ESPN.com.
What happens in the outside world, of course, is not the same as what happens within the heart of a high school football team. What piques human interest is not the same as what tests the character of young men. And to say these Bloomfield players have been tested sounds woefully inadequate.
Emotions run deep and raw. It should come as no surprise that Outlaw was careful with his words. Over 10 minutes, he used the word "focus" no fewer than eight times. These are young guys, and his team has endured much over four months. Yes, there are life lessons to be learned. Some are easy to understand and some not so easy. Outlaw is sure the best lesson right now is to stand tall and together in the face of hardship. After all, these boys have the biggest football game of their lives ahead of them.
"We're staying together as a family," Outlaw said. "We're focused.
"Our kids have been fighting through adversity from the beginning. It has been a long year. Yes, there are life lessons to be learned. They see it firsthand. All we can do is stay together."
Outlaw looked out on the field as his guys practiced in their familiar blue and orange. Everybody was moving. Everybody was doing something. Everybody was learning something. They've all been on time for practice, he said, all doing what they're supposed to be doing. They've remained focused. And after using that word yet again, he finally let down his guard a bit.
"I can't even tell you in words how we feel inside," Outlaw said. "It has been unbelievable. We keep our emotions tight. But it is a learning experience I will never forget."
Outlaw took over as Bloomfield head coach in 2010. There have been few prouder programs over the past two decades. State championships. Major college players. Pros. From Dwight Freeney to Andrew Pinnock to Matt Lawrence to Kory Sheets and on and on.
"We have a young man now who starts for the Kansas City Chiefs [Marcus Cooper]," Outlaw said. "He was at our game against East Catholic. He comes and practices and works with the kids. His mother is the cheerleading coach. Our alumni came up [Saturday] to talk to the kids. We are a family."
The day the news broke about Mitchell, Bloomfield, 9-2, defeated Fermi, 40-0. Asked what those hours were like, Outlaw recalls only an emotional fog.
"I can hardly remember," he said. "It's like a dream. We tried to stay together. That's all we did. We wanted to go out there and play our best football. I think the kids did a good job of keeping their heads on straight. And now we're trying to move forward and keep T.J. in our prayers."
Outlaw brought over senior quarterback/safety Norvel Stewart, one of his captains, one of the best players in the state. He would talk on behalf of his teammates.
"He has been starting since he was a freshman," Outlaw said. "He's a phenomenal athlete, a smart kid. He works hard. He is a man among boys in high school football. He is our leader."
Yes, Stewart said, he was close to Mitchell. And, yes, it has been difficult.
"The coaches have done a great job," said Stewart, who has committed to play safety at UMass. "We've been grinding through this together since the summertime. It has been very difficult, but at the same time, we have a goal to reach.
"I love it here. Coaches. Staff. Teachers. Students. Bloomfield is a great school. I'm well aware of the football history. I'm just trying to be part of the history. There is a great tradition here. So many guys have gone D-I, pro. I look up to all those guys. We are a family. We are brothers."
Brothers who have endured much. Johnson, who had won a scholarship to Central after finishing his football career at Bloomfield in 2011, lost his life on Aug. 1 at 19. And now Mitchell, who Outlaw said did everything for Bloomfield football, is in such deep trouble at 18. Mitchell told police that when he tried to break off his relationship with Taylor and expressed interest in girls, Taylor became possessive, controlling and even threatened him with a sword.
Mitchell had caught three touchdown passes as a wide receiver. He returned a punt for a touchdown. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown. He returned one of his eight interceptions for a touchdown. He placekicked. With one dead man, all the football numbers seem so insignificant now.
Reminded that he had called Mitchell "a good kid" in the media when he was arrested, Outlaw corrected me.
"A great kid," Outlaw said. "Never missed practice. Didn't miss school. Never been in trouble."
Now, he is in the worst kind of trouble.
It was at that moment I noticed a picture enclosed in plastic of a player in a Bloomfield uniform hanging from his coach's neck. It was No. 1. It was T.J. Mitchell.
"He's my player," Outlaw said. "He's my guy. I hate that this happened to him. He's just a little kid still."
And then he stopped himself.
"We have to be focused," he said.
Capital Prep, Outlaw said, is a really good team. Fast. Physical. Undefeated. Capital Prep, Stewart said, is phenomenal, No. 1 for good reason.
"We're going to have to play our best game to win," Outlaw said.
"We have to be focused," Norvel Stewart, Outlaw's leader, said.