Photo courtesy John Fajardo, LBCC
All fabric is made in essentially the same way: hundreds of individual threads woven together to make something strong, something whole. A football jersey is made that way. A community is made that way too, or a football team: e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
When a hole is punched in that fabric, it can fall apart. Every thread depends on every other thread for its integrity.
That was the story of the LBCC football team this week, simultaneously mourning the loss of 2016-17 safety Guy Alford and preparing for a game on Saturday against rival Cerritos, with the Crosstown Cup on the line.
Alford, 20, was murdered in a North Long Beach Jack in the Box drive-thru, shot to death just after midnight Tuesday night. The week was filled with that loss, with his absence. On Wednesday under the setting sun the team went through their gameplan for Saturday, then that evening they huddled with Alford’s family and other community members outside Veterans Memorial Stadium for a candlelight vigil.
“I was very close with Guy, a lot of our coaches were,” said LBCC coach Brett Peabody. “You worry about some guys in your program, and I never had any concerns about him. He always made the right choices–losing a young man like that is extremely difficult.”
Vikings DB coach Darnell Lacy lived around the corner from Alford and would train him in his spare time. “He worked out with my nine-year old son,” said Lacy. Alford was trying to finish his associate’s degree at LBCC so that he could transfer out of state to a Division 1 four-year university, where he wanted to keep playing football. He had scholarship offers from the University of Idaho, among others.
Unfortunately these kinds of losses aren’t rare. The Sunday after Alford was shot, four people were ambushed in a Compton liquor store parking lot a few miles north of the Jack in the Box, a gunman shooting all four. A 17 year-old girl–as yet unnamed–died at the scene.
Even the LBCC football team itself is acquainted with the pain of grief and the sometimes numbing comfort of the sport’s schedule in dealing with it. Last September, Vikings lineman Tim “TC” Johnson died of complications resulting from a car crash. The team wore his initials on helmet stickers and went on to win a conference championship.
“The crazy thing is when we ordered the memorial stickers for Guy, we realized it was the same day last year that we ordered the stickers for Tim,” said Peabody.
The idea of “normalcy” after a tragedy has become something of a cliche, a way of making it easier to write about people trying to deal with inexpressible pain. But LBCC safety Cross Poyer said that the team’s schedule, its makeup, is exactly what the Vikings need right now.
“We started the week talking about the rivalry, about keeping the Cup on our side of the field and playing for our city,” said Poyer. “We ended it talking about Guy and how much he meant to us. A lot of us have been playing together since Pop Warner–this is like a family for us, this is a way to be with our family. The way Guy was, he really wouldn’t want us to just mourn. He’d want us to come together around something and fight.”
Poyer speaks from a place of authority. He was a star linebacker on St. John Bosco’s 2016 state championship team, leading the Braves to a California Open Division title even as his mother was fighting cancer, passing away less than a month after the season ended.
Saturday’s game, predictably, did not go perfectly. It began with a moment of silence in Alford’s memory. In the first half the LBCC sideline was on edge, there was more yelling between coaches and players than usual, small mistakes threatening to turn into emotional catastrophes. The game was a battle, with LBCC taking a three-score lead then watching it whittle away to just six points after Cerritos running back Rhamondre Stevenson ran for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. The fabric threatened to pull apart.
But the center held–the Vikings got their ground game going and were able to pull away and run the clock out. Pierre Robinson ran for 90 yards and two second-half touchdowns, Poyer recovered a critical fumble by Cerritos, and LBCC won 46-32. After the game, the team circled around eight year-old Caleb Bradfield. He lifted the Crosstown Cup and handed it to Poyer, who held it up for the rest of the team. Then Peabody lifted Bradfield in the air and everyone yelled and danced in celebration.
Bradfield is an eight-year old who recently completed two years of cancer treatment for stage III/IV neuroblastoma, a persistent form of cancer. Peabody wanted to make sure the Vikings understood the value of their time together this year so he added Bradfield as a member of the roster, and LBCC has hosted the Bradfield family at games this season.
“We are a community college program and we believe in the word community, that’s our strength,” said Peabody. “Bringing in a young man whose family has been through what they have, that’s what this is about. As a father, I can’t even imagine.”
Peabody’s son, Drake, is the Vikings’ starting quarterback–he had 258 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Cerritos.
This is the story of the LBCC football team, of people all over the city trying to deal with the holes in their lives. Those who are still here pull together tighter, closing the distance between them, filling the empty space.
The Crosstown Cup is a silver-plated sculpture bolted to a wooden base. LBCC and Cerritos have been playing for it for over 60 years. It’s empty, but when Bradfield lifts it in his young arms, it’s heavy enough to look full.