ELGIN — The Plainview-Elgin-Millville football team begin its healing process a week ago when it opened the 2019 season while honoring a fallen teammate.
The Bulldogs and the entire P-E-M community had more than just football on their minds when Chatfield was on hand for the contest. The Bulldogs played while paying tribute to Aidan Miller, who would have been a junior lineman this season. But Miller died suddenly of heart failure in late July.
"Our guys are learning how to deal with adversity both on the field and in life tonight," P-E-M coach Kevin Lamb said following the game. "I told them the game was really important, but not the most important thing we did tonight."
It was an emotional night all the way around for P-E-M. The Bulldogs paid tribute to Miller on the first play of the game. They put 10 players on the field for the first play from scrimmage, all juniors and classmates of Miller's. They left his right guard position open and took a delay-of-game penalty.
"I'm proud of the way we honored our fallen brother," Lamb said. "We wanted to compete for Aidan and I thought we did that well. I'm proud of our boys."
Following the penalty, almost as if there was some divine intervention, the Bulldogs scored on the game's first play, a 73-yard screen pass from Kaden Lamb to Leo Silha.
At midfield in the stadium, there is a giant gold paw print. In the middle of that No. "64" was paint in black with white trim. That was Miller's uniform number.
As the game went on, Chatfield scored three straight touchdowns before giving up a TD in the closing 15 seconds to post an 18-16 win.
"That was a very emotional night," Chatfield coach Jeff Johnson said. "The game of football is emotional enough, then when you add that, that's a lot of tough things. We knew about it coming into it. It tweaked with our pregame a little bit and I'm really proud of our guys."
Halftime was also emotional. The P-E-M team and the Miller family gathered on the field and one of Aidan's favorite songs was played.
"That halftime was hard, really hard" coach Lamb said. "We had a lot of guys crying in the middle of that group. He's got family on the team, cousins, and small-town stuff, best friends, guys he's grown up and played youth sports and hunted and fished with since he was just little. So this helps the healing of our boys and the healing of our community. It's an open hole in their heart."
The Chatfield team was also caught up in the tribute.
"I wanted to talk to them at halftime," Johnson said. "We were ready to talk, but all of a sudden they come up to the fence and they watched the whole deal. We didn't even have a halftime. As a coach you think you're thinking 'Oh,' but that was special."
In the stands, students and fans sang songs during the game and following the contest as well as the night-long tribute to Aidan continued.
"They were singing and playing music and just wanted to turn this into a celebration moving forward with Aidan in our hearts and Aidan in our minds," Lamb said.
Also in the high school, there is another tribute to Aidan. Encased in glass is a helmet with his jersey, a home black with the gold trim of his name and number. Another reminder of a friend and teammate that was lost too soon.