It was, if nothing else, an escape.
For three hours on Saturday night, Danvers turned to the gridiron for a reminder of normalcy.
Just days earlier, when Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer was murdered, there was no normal.
It was Tuesday afternoon when Ritzer was believed to be killed, allegedly inside the school.
Outside, the Falcons were practicing.
“It’s very surreal and very eerie to think we were so close when everything happened,” said coach Sean Rogers.
School was shut down on Wednesday and Thursday, and for many, the game at Winthrop that weekend was the furthest thing from their mind.
But the Falcons returned to practice on Thursday hoping to begin the recovery process.
“You want to honor Colleen as best you can, but you also want to honor the kids and allow them to do what they love to do,” Rogers said. “Having the kids sit around and just have to think about and dwell on the tragic event that happened wasn’t going to serve the kids any positive circumstances.”
Emotions were high, and it showed. Rogers called the practice “good for the circumstances.” Friday was better, as Rogers and his staff continued to monitor their players.
“We always talk about family and the football team — there are 100 members on the team, know that there are 100 sources for support, plus the coaching staff,” Rogers said.
On Saturday, the Falcons took the next step and traveled to the Vikings for a league matchup.
The game was a show of support beyond town lines. Both teams wore helmet stickers that read “In Loving Memory” next to Ritzer’s initials. Winthrop opened the gates for free and collected donations for a scholarship fund in Ritzer’s name.
As much as Danvers wanted to get back to playing football, this wasn’t just any other game. With emotions high, the Falcons went into the half trailing, 14-13.
“Whether the kids are feeling sad, angry, or just numb to the whole experience — [we talked about] channeling that energy into football and using it as a release,” Rogers said.
Rogers credited his senior captains — Mike Favreau, Anthony Cordoba, and Alex Valles — in refocusing the team at the half.
Valles and Cordoba both scored second-half touchdowns to lead the Falcons to a 39-27 win.
“We talked about rallying together so that the community could rally around us and find some positive in such a negative circumstance,” Rogers said.
Danvers had come back from adversity before, but it was restricted to the field. The Falcons started the season with a 44-0 loss to Marblehead.
“A lot of our returners thought we got a lot of kids coming back, we’re going to have a good year,” Rogers said. “Not that they didn’t practice hard, but I don’t think they were as prepared for the season as they thought they were.”
Danvers went back to work that week, trying to think less and just play. The mind-set worked, as they beat Beverley, 33-28, the next weekend.
The Falcons (6-1, 5-0) clinched the Northeastern Conference South title last week, qualifying for the postseason for the first time in eight years. As the No. 3 seed in the Division 3 Northeast playoffs, they will host Masconomet (4-3) on Friday night.
“We’ll go right back to work on Monday,” Rogers said. “We know that there are still going to be a lot of raw emotions.”
They’ll play the game again as a release, the daily practices and routine of it all giving comfort as they search for the new normal.
“It’s only a small part of the day,” Rogers said, “but whatever you can do to not have to focus on what happened just around the corner serves to help in that healing process.”