Normalcy is a word too often used when trying to get back to a routine, but at Sacramento City College nothing feels normal in the wake of a tragedy that has cast a pall over the school’s football program.
The Panthers are grieving the stunning death of 19-year-old offensive tackle Justin McAllister, a young man known for his engaging smile, his 6-foot-7 frame and his constant positivity. McAllister died Monday night at Sutter Medical Center, his heart apparently failing him after a routine 20-minute series of conditioning drills, family friends told The Sacramento Bee.
No official cause of death has been determined and an autopsy has been scheduled. Monday was not an especially hot day in Sacramento. Players received water breaks while conditioning under the supervision of coaches and trainers. McAllister collapsed in the locker room. He received CPR from bystanders and then paramedics, but there was nothing anyone could do.
Team captains and coaches met on campus Tuesday morning to plan the week. Should they practice? Would it be a sign of disrespect to the McAllister family, parents Lloyd and Mary and their other sons, Justin’s twin brother, Jack, and younger brother, Gavin, a multi-sport star at Delta High School in the river town of Clarksburg?
Sacramento City coach Dannie Walker reached out to the McAllister family. McAllister’s mother told Walker her son would want the Panthers to practice and play this week’s home game against Chabot College at 1 p.m. Saturday at Hughes Stadium.
The Panthers practiced Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, holding closed sessions so the team could focus and heal. They will have a walk-through Friday as they prepare to play the Gladiators of Hayward on what will be an emotional day in Sacramento.
“Really, it’s about Justin and his family, making sure we can help them in their grieving process,” Walker said. “We’re going to make sure we honor them and Justin. They wanted us to play the game and we will. We only had Justin for a short time, and what a phenomenal son, brother, a great teammate. Always showed up with a smile.”
Every junior college game in the state this weekend will observe a moment of silence for McAllister before kickoff, as suggested by fellow coaches and the California Community College Athletic Association.
“The support has been amazing,” Walker said. “I’m grateful that all the teams are doing that. It’s the right thing to do.”
Bigger than football
Sac City coaches and players have discussed the idea of displaying McAllister’s No. 68 jersey at the game. Helmet sticker decals with No. 68 will be on every helmet. His family will be in attendance.
“I’ve been really impressed with how everyone’s handled this, the meetings and practices, and everyone’s had a positive attitude, as positive as possible,” said Sac City quarterback Sean Nixon, a team captain. “The best thing for us was to be together. If we took a day or so off, some guys might not have done well with that. We tried to continue things as normal as possible, and it’s been good for us to be around each other. We need each other.”
Nixon praised Walker for his leadership. No one bears this load more than the head coach, who during an emotional candle-light vigil Monday night at Hughes reminded his players they are all his sons and to hug each other and appreciate one another.
“Coach Walker has handled it really well, and he’s not hiding it,” Nixon said. “He’s acknowledging what happened. He’s letting us know that Justin would want us to continue as normal as possible, to play hard, with great effort in practice. This is the most adversity we’ve faced as players and as a team, and it’s the most coach Walker has had. He’s making sure we’re all OK, and we need him.”
“It shows that this is a lot bigger than just football, that they do care, and we appreciate their support because we needed it,” Nixon said.
Nixon said the team was moved this week to learn McAllister’s father, Lloyd, asked Walker for permission to speak to the Panthers before Saturday’s game. The coaches and players said they would be honored to hear from him, Nixon said.
Nixon told his team Thursday that perspective counts now more than anything, that the Panthers can compete in honor of their fallen teammate by playing the right way.
“We want to win for Justin, but our main priority has to be to play with passion and effort — for Justin,” Nixon said. “The scoreboard will take care of itself. Don’t focus on the scoreboard of winning as much as the passion and effort, and we’ll be successful. Justin would want that.”
Grieving in Clarksburg
At Delta High School in Clarksburg, located at the southern tip of Yolo County, just off the banks of the Sacramento River, the Saints have continued football practices. They are trying to maintain their normal routine, football coach Tim Rapp said.
Rapp said Gavin McAllister, the team’s quarterback and Justin’s younger brother, is not alone in his grief. This is a town where football has for decades been a social event where people show their support for the community.
The McAllisters, Rapp said, have been cherished members of the community, though they live in West Sacramento. They have been such regulars at sporting events over the years that they are “like family — everyone loves them,” Rapp said.
A Delta High parent this week created a sticker decal for Saints helmets featuring Justin McAllister’s jersey number from his prep days. It shows his No. 74 with wings and a halo.
Rapp said there will be a candle-light vigil at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on the Delta football field, where people will gather to share stories. Rapp attended the vigil at Hughes Stadium on Monday night and was among those who spoke about McAllister.
McAllister was a three-sport star at Delta, playing football, basketball and his favorite sport of baseball, where he towered on the mound. It wasn’t so much his athletic prowess that moved teammates and coaches. It was his kindness and his smile. In his senior yearbook at Delta, McAllister urged everyone to appreciate life, offering this quote: “It goes by fast.”
Rapp has been dealt a double blow of emotions. He’s trying to keep a football team united while being emotionally taxed over his ailing mother, Sandra Jones, who has endured four cycles of chemotherapy and 30 days of radiation, though it hasn’t prevented the cancer from spreading to her lungs, liver and lymph nodes.
The coach said he appreciates every day he has with her. He praised the resolve of his players, teenagers who are not supposed to be dealing with the death of someone so young. Mary McAllister on Monday night gripped the arm of Rapp in the hospital room, shaken by the loss of her son, and implored Delta to play on in Justin’s honor. Rapp said they will do so. Delta plays at Biggs in Butte County, unsure if Gavin will play.
“I’ve been out the last two days with mom and family in Tahoe as we deal with the last few days to weeks of her life,” Rapp said. “It’s not been easy. Back in school today. Assistants have run practices. We’re going to have our weekly team dinner and bring the community together to honor a young man gone way too early.”