The homecoming game Friday against Sprague-Harrington was more than just football for the students of Valley Christian School.
It was a celebration, of both the spirit of the small, private school and the ability of the school community to unite during adversity.
Friday’s game marked the first time players and students have come together on their home turf in Spokane Valley since the death of 17-year-old Drew Swank, who died of a head injury suffered during a football game last month.
“We’re small but mighty,” said Derick Tabish, the school’s headmaster.
Though Swank’s death affected many at the school – made up of just 180 students in grades kindergarten through 12 – there was no sign of sadness Friday. Even in pouring rain, classmates cheered on girls playing “powder puff” football, just one of the homecoming festivities planned before the big game against Sprague-Harrington.
Coach Jim Puryear said this week has represented one step “on the way back to normal.”
“We’re still looking for our first win” of the season, Puryear said. His job was to keep players focused on the game, so they could go out and “play well and honor Drew’s memory.”
The school’s football program is only 3 years old.
“It’s kind of given us something to play for,” said Jason Hirschel, 18, a senior on the Panthers football team.
Parents and students organized a silent auction to help Swank’s family pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses related to his death.
“We’ve had an amazing amount of generosity,” said Chad Kimberley, the school’s athletic director.
Parents set up tents to shelter people from the rain at one end of the football field and spread out dozens of items up for bid. They included a snowmobile and a dirt bike, season passes to area ski mountains, tickets to Gonzaga men’s basketball games and athletic gear and other items signed by professional athletes, including a basketball signed by John Stockton.
Half the ticket revenue from Friday night’s game also will go to Swank’s parents, Don and Patti Swank, of Hauser Lake.
Organizers set a goal of raising $51,000 because “51 turned around is the number 15,” said Pat McConahy, whose son was a close friend of Swank’s. “So we’re always going to see a reflection of Drew.”
Swank’s jersey number was 15, a number that has special meaning to many at the school.
Brianna Bogart is one of 15 remaining juniors in the graduating class of 2011, of which Swank was a member.
The juniors wore T-shirts that read “The Fifteen Who ■ #15.” On the back were students’ top 15 favorite memories of Swank. Bogart’s memory was No. 3: chasing squirrels at practice.
“He was kind of that missing piece of our puzzle,” Bogart said. “As a class we’re still working through” how to move on without him.
Swank’s teammates wear blue dog tags bearing the number 15. The team officially retired the No. 15 jersey Friday.
Swank’s friends described him as wise beyond his years, always knowing the right thing to say, and as a peacemaker at Valley Christian.
“The one thing that everybody says about Drew is he loved everyone,” Kimberley said. “The beauty of this is everyone coming together as a community.”