The Death of a Teenage Quarterback

It isn't supposed to happen here, in Hometown, USA. It isn't supposed to happen anywhere, but children die after playing football more often than you know. And Evan Murray's family wants you to know the story of his final game.
photo of Lars AndersonLars AndersonSenior WriterAugust 23, 2017

The mother walks through the midnight darkness of the upstairs hallway in their New Jersey home, pushing open the door to her only child's bedroom. She checks his closet—sometimes she'll put on his clothes to feel close to him, to smell him, to be with him—and then examines his books on a shelf. Her boy had a way with words and wanted to become a writer, and now the mother is looking for a message from him, a clue, even though she knows she'll never really find one.

The coach ambles onto the football field in western New Jersey where it all went so terribly wrong two autumns ago. He comes here now, in the rolling green foothills of the Pocono Mountains, to be close to the spot where he last saw the quarterback who was unlike any other player in his 37-year coaching career. He's still trying to understand the cruelness of it all, the meaning of that last game, even though he knows he never really will.

The best friend sits on a wooden bench in the park where they played together and dreamed together. He closes his eyes and replays it all again on the grainy film of memory: the basketball games in this park, the football, the soccer, the skinned elbows, the laughter. The bench is the best friend's favorite place in the world, and on many summer nights when he's home from college he'll come here and, alone in the pines, rehash the final hours of the life of Evan Murray, wondering if football is to blame, trying to make sense of his best friend's death at age 17, even though he knows he never really will.

A commemorative bench in Meadow Breeze Park in Washington, New Jersey, where Evan grew up playing football, baseball, basketball and soccer.
A commemorative bench in Meadow Breeze Park in Washington, New Jersey, where Evan grew up playing football, baseball, basketball and soccer.(Photo courtesy of the Murray Family)

The last day begins when the alarm on Evan Murray's bedroom nightstand buzzes at 5:45 a.m. It's September 25, 2015. He lifts his 6'2", 190-pound frame out of his bed and touches his size-13 feet to the carpeted floor. Already, the high school senior is excited by the promise of this Friday: It's game day between Warren Hills Regional High—where Evan is the starting quarterback—and Summit (New Jersey) High. Kickoff is 13 hours away.

He presses on his iPod and blares Chance the Rapper, the beat so loud it practically shakes the upstairs windows in the four-bedroom house on this quiet street with lush lawns and soaring oaks. He showers, slips on his blue-and-white No. 18 jersey—he wears it in honor of Peyton Manning, who he had recently profiled for an English class—and slides into his 2010 Volkswagen Passat. It is now 6:30 a.m.

Evan wore the number 18 in honor of his favorite quarterback, Peyton Manning.
Evan wore the number 18 in honor of his favorite quarterback, Peyton Manning.(Photo courtesy of the Murray family)

He swings by the house of a teammate, Shane Plenge, and the two drive to Muheisen's Bagel & Deli. Evan orders his usual French toast bagel with cream cheese and a plain bagel with cream cheese. He washes them down with a tall carton of chocolate milk. As the teammates eat breakfast in the car, Evan seems quieter than usual, but Plenge chalks it up to game-day anticipation.

The two drive to school, with Evan steering the silver Passat through the cloudless early morning. Evan's father, Tom, had given him the Volkswagen only two weeks earlier, replacing the family minivan Evan had been driving. Oh man, Evan's friends loved to mock his "middle-age mom's minivan," as they called it, but he embraced how uncool he looked behind the wheel, always motoring into the school parking lot with his sunglasses on, windows down, rap music thumping, and the slyest of smiles lighting his face. That was Evan being Evan, a goofball's goofball.

He guides his Passat into the high school parking lot and turns into stall No. 287—his assigned spot. The starting quarterback for the Blue Streaks then grabs his backpack and strides into school, his gait steady and strong, the easy glide of a star athlete. Evan had once considered quitting football if he wasn't named the starting quarterback—he had no desire to ride the bench and could be as impetuous as any teenager—but now was living his halcyon days. A student tells him to "kick some ass" against Summit High.

Kelly Murray, Evan's mother, is in St. Clair, Michigan, moving her own mother into the hospice care wing at a nursing home. Kelly hasn't seen Evan for eight days. She sends him a text message early in the morning.

"Good luck bud," the text reads. "Be safe. I love you."

Evan texts back: "I love you too."


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She always grew so terrified on fall Friday nights as she approached those lights, some 40 feet tall, that cast an amber glow onto the football field. Before home games at Warren Hills Regional High in Washington Township, Kelly Murray paced in the school parking lot as other parents tailgated and talked. Then, once the game began, she'd continue pacing across the walkways and stairs in the grandstands, unable to sit still.

"Evan, you know I'm not in favor of you playing football," Kelly told her son five years earlier, when he first signed up to play in a youth league. "I won't stop you, but I'll never feel good about it because it's so dangerous."

"It's going to be OK, Mom," replied Evan, then 12 years old. "I can get hurt playing basketball and in other sports too. Trust me, I'll be just fine."

"I won't stop you, but I'll never feel good about it because it's so dangerous," Kelly (left) told Evan (right) when he first signed up for a youth football league.
"I won't stop you, but I'll never feel good about it because it's so dangerous," Kelly (left) told Evan (right) when he first signed up for a youth football league.(Photo courtesy of the Murray Family)

Kelly took every precaution. Six weeks before Evan's final season, she drove him to a doctor's office for his annual pre-camp physical. She watched intently as the physician pushed on his stomach, listened to his heart and flashed a light into his eyes.

Evan never complained about being sick. As a toddler, Kelly would realize he was ill only when he vomited. But then again, Evan's deal-with-it demeanor was evident right away: Born 10 weeks early, he spent the first six weeks of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit, fighting for breath, rarely crying even then.

From then on he'd been a textbook overachiever; as a teenager, for instance, he'd read novels when most of his classmates were watching television, not just for the pleasure, but also because he understood it improved his writing and his relationship with words.

"Tell me if you're not feeling well," Kelly said on numerous occasions.

"Mom," Evan would reply, "I'm good just like always."

The doctor pronounced Evan fit to play after his 15-minute physical before his senior year, assuring Kelly that her son was a healthy young man.

Still, six weeks after that exam, Kelly is a mess of nerves as game time ticks closer. She tells a friend in Michigan, "I should be there with my son."


Seven hours before kickoff, Evan Murray is sitting in his government class, his head bobbing. Evan's big hazel eyes usually flash with curiosity, but now he has trouble keeping them open as he rests his head on his right hand, which is propped up by his elbow anchored to the desk. Evan is an A student—in his junior year he recorded the school's highest PSAT score in the English comprehension section—and no one in the class is accustomed to seeing him doze during a lecture.

The bell rings to signal the end of the period. The brightness in Evan's eyes suddenly returns. In the hall he nods at virtually every student he passes, his chin held high. Evan was named the starting quarterback late in his sophomore season, and now he knows how to play that role, projecting confidence and strength to every curious glance shot his way. This is what his hero Peyton Manning did, and this is what Evan does now.

Even when Evan was 15, he organized players-only practice sessions and tutored older players in the nuances of the playbook, which Evan seemed to memorize after one reading. Now he is usually the last player to head to the showers after practice. He lingers on the field, staying late with receivers and launching long, spiraling passes through the twilight. From their cars on Jackson Valley Road, locals driving home from work can see the silhouette of No. 18 striving to get better.

"I coached for over 35 years, and Evan was one of the hardest-working players I ever had," says Larry Dubiel, the longtime head football coach at Warren Hills. "A dream player—an absolute coach's dream."

As a pitcher for the Warren Hills baseball team, Evan consistently threw 90 mph fastballs.
As a pitcher for the Warren Hills baseball team, Evan consistently threw 90 mph fastballs.(Photo courtesy of the Murray family)

Piloting a pro-style offense that features sprint-outs and bootlegs, Evan is a dual-threat quarterback. He has a strong arm—he consistently throws a 90 mph fastball as a starting pitcher on the Warren Hills baseball team—and is a capable runner. In the season opener, Evan threw for 209 yards and a touchdown in Warren Hills' 24-23 loss to Cranford. Eight days later, he passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns in the Blue Streaks' 28-21 win over Rahway.

Now six hours before kickoff against Summit High, Evan spots his head coach in the school hallway. They talk about an opposing cornerback they think they can beat on deep routes.

"I can't wait," Evan says. "This is going to be so much fun. We got this, Coach. We got this."


Evan knows his grandmother is sick. So three days before his final game, he sits at the desk in the study of his house and writes a letter, the love pouring from his pen.

Dear Grandma Margie,

It's Evan, your favorite Grandson (of course)!... Football is going well so far, even though we lost our first game 24-23. It was a great game, back and forth the whole time, and it came down to the final seconds. Even though we didn't come out on top, I was encouraged because I had over 200 yards passing, and the other team was favored by about 30 points. The next week we won 28-21, and I had another great game … School is challenging because I have lots of highlevel classes, but I'm doing well! Keep being strong Grandma, I love you so much!

Love,

Evan

The next morning, before driving to school, Evan addresses an envelope and affixes a stamp. The letter is mailed 36 hours before kickoff.


Five hours before kickoff, with classes out for the day, Evan drives a few friends to QuickChek convenience store—and they buy subs for themselves and teammates.

They return to the school cafeteria, where the players eat and the entire team watches a movie. At one point Evan leaves to use the restroom. When he sits back down with his friends, he remarks on the strange color of his urine.

The team holds a walkthrough practice on the Warren Hills basketball court, reviewing plays and formations and game strategies. Evan is his usual self, correcting mistakes by his teammates and explaining how important it will be to be precise in everything they do in just three hours out on the football field, across Jackson Valley Road from the school.

The players pull on their uniforms in the school locker room and, with kickoff 70 minutes away, walk toward the field. Evan leads the way.


Three nights before his final game, Evan sat down in the family study to tackle his English homework. The assignment was to write an essay for a pretend college application answering the following question: Choose a community to which you belong and describe that community and your place within it.

His head buried in a circle of lamplight, Evan tapped the keys on his computer for two hours, distilling his thoughts onto the computer screen.

"The group that I am most proud to be a part of … is the football team," Evan wrote. "I believe that I help bring all these groups in the Warren Hills community together for a short time. I play quarterback and am charged with leading the team on and off the field. Being in this position really puts my life in perspective and emphasizes what it means to be a Blue Streak, because I find myself being a spokesperson for our team everywhere I go. …

There is nothing like playing on Friday nights in front of the whole Blue Streak community, with all its groups and members coming together to cheer us on. After games, I talk to countless people about how the game went, and I find that so many people take a special interest in what we do, and that makes me truly feel like I make a small difference in the community. Bringing everybody together for one night in the week makes me proud to be a Blue Streak, and to be the leader of the group makes me feel even prouder."

Thirty hours before kickoff, Evan hands the essay to his teacher. He plans to send it along with his application to the University of Michigan.


The father takes his seat on top of the tiny wooden press box, papers and pens spread out before him on a table. Tom Murray, purchasing director for Bed Bath & Beyond, is a statistician for the Warren High football team. He does this not out of his love for numbers but to be closer to his only son. A stoic man, Tom can't suppress his pride in Evan.

With kickoff 20 minutes away on this sparkling fall night, Tom watches his son warm up from his perch above the field, a thin smile stretching across his face. With each passing week this summer and fall, the frontiers of what is possible have expanded for Evan, and no one is more aware of this than his father. His friends know not to bother him during games.

The stands begin to fill with about 1,500 fans, most clad in blue and white. Evan is hitting his receivers in stride during his pregame throws, the passes rarely touching the field turf. "We're expecting a big night from you," Coach Dubiel tells Evan. "You're our leader."

Tom (left) poses with his son. He still can't let go.
Tom (left) poses with his son. He still can't let go.(Photo courtesy of the Murray family)

Tom Murray continues to watch his son. Six days earlier, the two had driven together to Pittsburgh, where Evan pitched for a baseball coach at the University of Pittsburgh. The Panthers are recruiting Evan to play baseball, but during his informal "tryout," Evan struggled with his velocity and control. When pressed by his father if he felt OK, Evan insisted he was fine. "Just a little tired," he said. "It's no big deal."

From his metal folding chair atop the press box, Tom studies his son carefully, analyzing his pregame movements and throws and mannerisms and countenance.

Evan looks absolutely wonderful.


Minutes before kickoff, 615 miles away in St. Clair, Michigan, Kelly Murray glances at her watch. A familiar feeling grips her—the queasiness of knowing her son is about to step between the white lines.

Kelly has always enjoyed the sleepy pace of life in St. Clair (population: 5,802), the town near where she grew up that now offers her a nice escape from the hustle of East Coast living. Located in the Eastern "thumb" of the state, St. Clair is home to the longest freshwater boardwalk in the world, and Kelly has always enjoyed losing herself by taking leisurely, lovely strolls along the St. Clair River, gazing across the water into Canada. Here she feels safe.

She joins two friends at the River Crab restaurant on the St. Clair. She looks at her watch again. It reads 6:58. Two minutes later, she looks again.

"What's the matter?" a friend asks Kelly after they are seated at a riverside table. Outside the window, the evening sunlight dances on the water and glitters like diamonds. "Why are you so serious?"

"It's game time," Kelly says. "I've just got a funny feeling."

She wishes to be with her son.


Evan jogs onto the field for the Blue Streaks' first offensive possession. He looks to the sideline and receives the play call from his head coach. He's alert in the huddle, his eyes gleaming, and before the first snap he tells his teammates that this is their time, their moment, their night.

Evan slings the ball all over the field during the game's first 20 minutes of clock time, some passes reaching his receivers, others falling incomplete. On a few plays, he is hit after he releases the ball. On one third down, he drops back and runs to his right; just as he unleashes a pass, a defender crashes into him, slamming Evan's head and body to the turf.

Evan wobbles to the sideline, clutching his sternum beneath his pads. The athletic trainer, Kevin Call, immediately checks him, worried he is concussed. After a cursory exam, Call tells the coaching staff Evan is good to return to the game.

So he does. With about a minute remaining in the first half and the ball at midfield, Evan receives a snap and rolls to his left. He wants to attack the cornerback he and his coach had discussed earlier. Evan rears back and rifles a ball deep, sending it high into the September sky.

A defensive end wallops Evan after the ball leaves his fingertips, and he slams Evan into the turf. The cornerback intercepts the pass. Wanting to make the tackle, Evan pops up and, as he's angling toward the cornerback, another defensive player rams into him. The quarterback crumbles to the ground. Both hits are legal.

"We're expecting a big night from you," Coach Dubiel told Evan before his final game. "You're our leader."
"We're expecting a big night from you," Coach Dubiel told Evan before his final game. "You're our leader."(Photo courtesy of the Murray family)

Evan rises and gingerly walks to the sideline. The trainer, Call, moves immediately to Evan and escorts him to the bench.

One minute passes in real time, two—Evan appears fine, responding to coaches and the trainer. Then, as Call is still inspecting him, Evan suddenly slumps on the bench and his limp body slides sideways, like a seated mannequin tipping to its left. Evan loses consciousness as he's caught by a teammate. Tom Murray, atop the press box, is busily recording statistics when a family friend yells for him: "Tom, something is wrong with Evan!"

Tom sprints down the grandstand. He leaps over the four-and-a-half-foot chain-link fence behind the bench and is quickly at his son's side on the bench, grasping his hand, looking into his sweat-beaded face.

Evan blinks his eyes open. The coaching and training staff, huddling over him, believe he has a concussion. They call for the ambulance, which is parked close to the locker room about 75 yards away.

About two minutes later, the first half ends with Warren Hills trailing 0-6. On his way to the locker room, Dubiel stops to talk to Evan, who is now sitting up on the sideline and waiting for the ambulance to move onto the field. "How are you doing?" Dubiel asks.

"I'll be fine," Evan says. "Go get this. We'll talk after the game."

The ambulance pulls near Evan, who is now on a gurney. Tom Murray hands his cellphone to his son as the teen is loaded into the back of the emergency vehicle.

Kelly is on the other end of the line. A concerned friend in the stands had texted her and told her to call Tom immediately.

"What happened?" Kelly asks.

"I don't know," Evan says. "I think I blacked out or something. I'm OK."

"I love you," Kelly says.

"I love you too," Evan replies.

Evan gives the phone back to his father. Lying on his back on the stretcher, he flashes a thumbs-up sign to the crowd, prompting a relieved round of applause. Evan, with eye-black smudged on his face, smiles.

He is lifted into the ambulance. Tom climbs into the front seat. The vehicle rumbles off the field and disappears down the dark two-lane road, red and white lights flashing as it passes the Victorian-style houses in the Jersey night.


Kelly trembles at the table. She tells her friends Evan has been injured. "Something's not right," she says. "Something's not right."

She orders her food. She calls her sister in Syracuse, New York, telling her in a panicked voice that her boy is hurt, that something is terribly wrong. She cannot eat.

Her friends drive her back to their house in Michigan. In the car Kelly is so scared she has trouble breathing.


From the front seat of the ambulance, Tom peers into the back at his son through a window. The driver is heading to a small hospital four miles from the football field.

The white ambulance cruises along a highway, the driver obeying the speed limits, believing his patient is in no grave danger.

But then, horror: Tom sees, through the window, the Emergency Medical Technician performing chest compressions on Evan. His son has stopped breathing.

The driver changes course: Evan needs to go to Morristown Memorial Hospital, some 40 minutes away, because it houses a trauma unit. The driver flips on the siren and mashes the accelerator.

Tom stares at his boy.

The medic works feverishly, pumping hard on Evan's chest. Up and down, up and down, he pushes.

Tom stares at his boy.

Minutes and miles pass. The ambulance finally stops in front of the emergency room at Morristown Memorial. Tom rushes out of the passenger seat, eyes wide with terror.

Tom looks around but sees no medical personnel running out of the hospital to help his boy. "Where is everyone?" Tom yells. "Why aren't they waiting for us?"

The answer—the oh-my-God answer, the please-no-no-no answer—hits Tom at just past 9:15 p.m. ET, 135 minutes after kickoff.


Kelly steps out of the car at her friend's house and into the growing Michigan darkness. She's standing in the front lawn when her cellphone rings, the smell of freshly cut grass hanging in the cool air.

"He didn't make it," Tom says.

"What do you mean?!" Kelly yells. "What do you mean?!"

"He didn't make it," Tom says. "He's gone."

"What are you saying to me, Tom?!" Kelly yells. "Don't say that to me! Don't say that to me!"

One friend takes the phone from Kelly, who falls to the ground, wailing. She rips up the grass and continues to yell, the screams audible for blocks. Another friend picks her up and carries her into the house.

Kelly sits on a chair, unable to talk for 30 minutes, sobbing so hard that her friends quickly decide she is in no condition to fly home. She needs to be driven to her son immediately.


In a private room at Morristown Memorial, Tom wraps his arms around his son. Evan is on a gurney with a tube in his mouth and a brace around his neck. The time of death was around 9:30 p.m., two-and-a-half hours after kickoff. The medical staff believes he suffered some sort of fatal brain injury.

For over an hour, Tom won't let go of his boy. A family friend arrives, hugs Tom tightly, and tells him a dozen students and parents are in the waiting room and deeply concerned. Tom briefly leaves Evan's side and quietly tells everyone, "We lost Evan." Then he returns and continues to hold and caress his boy.

Into the night and through the small hours of the morning, Tom doesn't let go—can't let go.


Kelly sits in the backseat of the car, her head resting on the shoulder of her brother-in-law. Her eyes are blank.

The countrysides of different states pass by—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania. At one point she sees the first blush of the day's light ripple across the horizon and shoot across the farming fields of the Midwest. Gazing out the window at the sunrise, Kelly is reminded that the world will carry on, even if her son won't—and even if she can't.

Kelly is quiet in the backseat, with so many questions about Evan rolling through her mind: Did he suffer? Did he take one fatal hit? Was it a blow to the head? What caused him to die? Then she'd catch herself and think: What's it all matter? My boy is gone. That's all. My boy is gone.

The car pulls into her driveway 20 hours after kickoff. But now she can't bring herself to walk inside, not when her son isn't there. Tom eventually approaches; husband and wife collapse into each other's arms, moaning together in pain.

The entire football staff soon comes to the house. They form a line to hug and comfort Evan's parents. Tom can't stop blaming himself for his son's death, believing he could have done something to prevent it. "It's my fault," he says over and over. "My fault."

More than 300 students, teachers, coaches and community members gather at the football field the day after, unsure of where else to go. They hug, cry and share stories of Evan—stories of his love of drawing comic book heroes, stories of his silly high-pitched laughter, stories of how he was going to become a sportswriter, stories of his ability to drink more gallons of chocolate milk in a week than any other kid on the planet.

Evan's friends created a makeshift memorial in his assigned school parking lot space after learning of his death.
Evan's friends created a makeshift memorial in his assigned school parking lot space after learning of his death.(Photo courtesy of the Murray family)

Friends also congregate in the school parking lot in space No. 287 and build a makeshift memorial. Within hours, this rectangle of asphalt is filled with flowers, balloons, candles, banners, written notes, cards and photos. One handwritten missive reads: "We love you, Evan. You are so beautiful. Never, never will we forget you."

Two police officers arrive to deliver seven boxes of Dunkin' Donuts and enough coffee for everyone. Coach Dubiel, who had sped to the hospital to be by Tom's side, shuffles onto the field, his eyes red. He embraces each of the players, whispering in their ears that he loves them. He says the same thing to non-football players.

According to the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, named after the former Vikings offensive tackle who died from heat stroke complications during a practice in 2001, Evan was one of 13 U.S. high school students whose death was linked to playing football in 2015.

"But this isn't supposed to happen here," Coach Dubiel says. "Not in Hometown, USA."


The line stretches the length of several football fields out of Faith Discovery Church. Young and old, wealthy and poor, black and white, even little kids from across the region who never knew Evan yet dressed in their football uniforms—they all come to say goodbye at the visitation five days after Evan has died.

The family is the first to enter. Kelly still hasn't seen her son. Holding the hands of her husband and sister, she approaches the open casket. She loses all strength in her legs when she's two feet away.

She strokes his face, rubs his bearded chin. She wants to crawl in the casket with him and never let go. For the next nine hours, she clutches every last person in the line as they stream past Evan. One peewee football team kneels in front of the casket and says a quiet prayer. Even the 70 police officers and firefighters from Warren County assigned to work the visitation embrace Evan's mom. That night Kelly is so sore she can barely lift her arms.

The funeral is the next day. Evan is wearing a blue-and-green checkered shirt. Two days earlier, Tom had entered Evan's room to pick out the shirt—the last time Tom will walk into his boy's bedroom.

In the nursing home in Michigan, a family friend streams the funeral on her iPhone and plays it for Evan's grandmother, who is unconscious. She dies three days later.

The letter Evan wrote to her is sitting on her nightstand.


The medical examiner calls with the news: Evan's spleen was abnormally large, so big that it was literally hanging out of his rib cage. The spleen was lacerated; Evan bled to death within about 30 minutes of his final play on the football field. The examiner explains that he had mononucleosis, a condition that often causes the spleen to swell.

Most young people with mono don't have the energy to climb out of bed—this was the case for Kelly when she was struck with mono as a 16-year-old—but Evan was virtually asymptomatic and ignored the symptoms he did experience. He didn't allow the fatigue or dehydration (signaled by the strange-colored urine after school) to keep him from the football field. "An atypical case," the medical examiner calls it.

Tom is shocked by the information; he assumed a head injury had taken his son. But the knowledge that there was nothing Tom could have done to prevent the sequence of events brings no relief to the father. His boy is still gone.

"It was Evan's tremendous work ethic that sadly led to his downfall," Dubiel says. "He never complained about anything. He was so tough, so determined. He never wanted anyone to worry about him."

(Photo courtesy of the Murray family)

In the days, weeks and months following the funeral, thousands more cards and notes arrive in the Murray's mailbox. Peyton Manning sends a signed jersey. Eli Manning pens a long letter. ("The pain of losing a child is unimaginable," Eli says now. "It's something you never get over, but when I think of Evan's family, I pray they have peace.") Coach Jim Harbaugh explains that he read Evan's college application essay to his players. Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn writes, "Our team is thinking of you." And a mother in Illinois details how she lost her son to football, too—he suffered a fatal head injury—and that she prays peace will come.

Kelly reads every last word.

She finds no peace.


It's a blue-gray summer afternoon in Washington, New Jersey, and Kelly is driving through the quaint downtown with her niece, Danielle Hobson.

It's been almost two years since her son lost his life, but blue-and-white ribbons are still attached to street signs and utility poles in Evan's memory. Kelly always counts the ribbons on her slow rides through downtown, desperately hoping none have blown away.

The family wants Evan's story told, to help their own healing and so that other football families, perhaps, can learn from their devastation. Kelly hasn't returned to her job as an in-home caregiver. Tom sometimes doesn't remember driving to work in the mornings, still searching for his magnetic north.

They haven't canceled the mobile plan for Evan's phone, because it comforts Kelly to know his voice is still alive, forever frozen at 17. Kelly still visits his room—which is just as Evan left it, down to the exact order of how he arranged his books on his bookcase—and lies in his bed at night, letting thoughts of her son wash over her.

Yet on this June afternoon, as Kelly cruises along Belvidere Avenue in her white Mazda CX-7, there is joy in the backseat—exactly 11.7 pounds of it. Strapped into a car seat is Adrian Evan Hobson, a baby boy Danielle gave birth to eight weeks ago. When Danielle told Kelly and Tom that she was going to pass along Evan's name to her first born, the still-grieving parents cried. But after a few moments they both smiled, as if sunlight had finally penetrated the fog.

"I don't want my son playing football," Danielle says. "It's dangerous. But will my wishes stop him? I don't know."

"Football didn't kill Evan," says Kathy Killgore, Kelly's sister. "He died because he was sick, and he was playing when he was sick, and nobody knew it."

Kelly, her niece and little Adrian Evan pull into Meadow Breeze Park, the place where Evan grew up playing football, baseball, basketball and soccer. A few parents bought a bench, engraved Evan's name into the wood and placed it near the basketball court. Evan's best friend, A.J. Lea, often sits on the bench when he's home from college. Here, surrounded by blooming marigolds, the wind dusting his cheeks, he reads books and relives those crowded hours of happiness he shared with Evan.

"The bench is where I spend time with Evan," says Lea, now a sophomore at Cornell. "Evan and I pushed each other academically. We did a reading competition against each other in the third grade, and in high school we were in the National Honor Society together. We even edited each other's college essays. My life will never be the same without him."

Kelly steers the car toward the Warren Hills High football field, back to those haunting floodlights. Dubiel retired after the 2016 season, but he still returns to the stadium on Jackson Valley Road—and can still picture that last game with Evan, that final conversation on the field.

"You want to move on in life, but it hasn't been easy," he says. "I don't blame football. I blame this on life not always being fair."

"Football put Evan in a compromising position," Kelly says, "but it could have been on a basketball court where he took a hit or even in the school hallway messing around with his friends."
"Football put Evan in a compromising position," Kelly says, "but it could have been on a basketball court where he took a hit or even in the school hallway messing around with his friends."(Photo courtesy of the Murray family)

Kelly parks outside of the stadium. She walks to the plaque that hangs on the outside wall of the locker room. The words from Evan's college essay are inscribed in bronze. Kelly examines every syllable, saying each word aloud, searching for...searching for...her son.

"I ask myself all the time, 'How should I feel about football?'" Kelly says, her fingers rubbing the plaque. "Some people think I should hate it, but I don't. Football put Evan in a compromising position, but it could have been on a basketball court where he took a hit or even in the school hallway messing around with his friends. But sometimes I think I should have made him stop. He'd be here now if I did. But how could I? He loved it so much. Just loved it."

For one minute, Kelly keeps her right hand on the plaque, two.

Rain begins to fall.

Three minutes, four.

Her hand doesn't budge.

Five, six.

In stillness, she closes her eyes.

She is with her boy.


Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of eight books, most recently The Quarterback Whisperer. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.

Video produced by Vanessa Casal-Onate. Video edited by Ben Johnson. Video graphics by Jonathan Miskulin.

You can donate to the Evan Murray Scholarship Fund, a New Jersey non-profit, by sending a check to Heverin Financial, 126 Belvidere Avenue, Washington, NJ 07882.

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