In a normal week, the Guyer football team would be preparing for Thursday night’s rematch with Colleyville Heritage, perhaps with revenge in mind after the Panthers knocked off the Wildcats early in the 2012 season.
But this is no normal week at the Guyer fieldhouse.
Instead, the Wildcats are preparing, with grief on their minds, to say final goodbyes to a teammate Thursday morning, as they will attend the funeral of senior fullback Nathan Maki just hours before taking the field at C.H. Collins Athletic Complex.
Maki, a starter and one of the team’s leaders, was killed late Saturday in a shooting, leaving his teammates in grief with football the furthest thing from their minds.
“The little memories that keep popping up in my head are what’s getting me and making me break down,” said senior wide receiver Logan Helal, one of Maki’s best friends. “I feel numb about the whole situation. It’s hard to really understand that your brother’s dead. I don’t even want to accept the fact that he’s not going to be here anymore and we can’t hang out anymore — go to the lake, go hunting, go fishing. We can’t do any of that stuff anymore, and it hurts.”
Guyer head coach John Walsh walked into his house Sunday morning and got a phone call from Peyton Bucklew, Maki’s girlfriend and a Guyer soccer standout.
“Sunday was completely shocking,” Walsh said. “I literally got home from Houston, I got in my house, closed the door and Peyton called me. It made my knees buckle, and that’s never happened to me before. The shock was all day Sunday — for me and the program.”
In fact, Thursday’s game against Heritage was nearly called off, as the thought crossed Walsh’s mind to touch base with Panthers coach Mike Fuller and give his team more time to grieve.
“Initially, we didn’t care [about football],” Walsh said. “Sunday I was ready to call [Fuller] and say, ‘We don’t need this game. We’re out.’”
That’s when Walsh reached out to Coppell coach Joe McBride, one of his friends in the coaching fraternity. The Cowboys went through a similar situation last season when Jacob Logan drowned in the middle of the season, resulting in an outpouring of support for the Coppell program. Walsh also called his best friend and coaching mentor, Steve Freeman, and Denton school district athletic director Ken Purcell.
“I immediately called Joe McBride, who just dealt with this a year ago,” Walsh said. “The advice from Joe was to get to doing what we do normally and do it in a hurry. You’re going to still grieve and have your moments with the family and the student body, but he said to get them in their routines. The more dead time, the slower it’s going to heal. I’ve really leaned on Joe every day. He’s been great.”
While Walsh considered canceling the game, which he didn’t know then would fall on the day of Maki’s funeral, Maki’s teammates would not have had it.
“I want to play. We all want to play. That was never a question,” said Tyler Smith, Maki’s other best friend who was weightlifting partners with Maki and Helal. “We want to play our hearts out for him. That’s not just for one game. That’s every practice, every morning lift, every day of our lives. He’s still right there with us.”
Guyer was scheduled to have its first practice to prepare for Heritage on Monday, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the team met privately with Maki’s family. The players spoke on Maki’s behalf, shared some cries and some laughs, and also got an unexpected visit from 10 Coppell players, who shared their experiences surrounding Logan’s death in 2012.
“It was really nice getting to see Coppell come up here and talk to us and talk to the family,” Helal said. “They were just kind of motivating us to get through this. It was really inspirational. It made my heart feel warm.”
McBride said his leadership committee, comprising 10 players, decided to deliver a card signed by the team to Guyer’s fieldhouse and offer support.
“It really hit them,” McBride said. “Jacob’s situation is still really fresh on our kids’ minds. When that happened with Guyer, it just triggered a lot of emotions from our kids. Their hearts were broken and bled for all the Guyer people. They just wanted to let [Guyer] know we care and we’ve been there and know how tough it is. They wanted to let them know we support them and if they need anything, holler at us.”
Coppell is not the only school that has shown Guyer support.
Twitter and other social networking sites were abuzz Tuesday with a campaign to remember Maki — taking pictures of students wearing blue and with his jersey number, 33, inscribed on their arms. Pictures hit Twitter from all around the area: Argyle, Denton, Flower Mound Marcus, Lewisville and Guyer’s rivals at Ryan and Lake Dallas, just to name a few.
“What you find out in bad situations is how many good people there are,” Walsh said. “That’s usually what happens, whether it’s a world tragedy or a Denton tragedy. The incredible outpouring in Denton has been awesome.”
Walsh said he’s been asked in recent days how Maki’s absence will affect his football team, not from an emotional standpoint but on the field, and his answer was a quick one.
Maki was injured and was set to make his 2013 debut at the beginning of District 5-4A play in a couple of weeks, and his absence already had been on Walsh’s mind before the tragedy.
“I’ve been saying all along we’ve had five or six starters out, and I always go back to him as the guy we’ll miss most because he did the most for our offense,” Walsh said. “[Running backs] D.J. [Breedlove] and Anthony [Taylor] and [quarterback] Jerrod [Heard] — they know what they’re fixing to miss, because he blocked so much for them. He had great hands out of the backfield. Everyone’s worried about where Jerrod and D.J. are going, and we’d slip Nathan out the back door and he’d steal a touchdown.
“We didn’t just lose a friend. We didn’t just lose a teammate. When it comes to the football end, the Guyer Wildcats lost a great football player.”
While that may be true, the most important thing on the players’ minds is that Maki is no longer with them.
Helal and Smith perhaps have had the hardest time, as the trio were inseparable and hung out constantly.
“We want to win the state championship for him,” Smith said. “I know he’s thinking the same thing, but he’s saying, ‘I don’t want y’all to win it for me, I want y’all to win it for everyone.’ That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to win it again for all of us.”
The road to a repeat began last week at Cedar Hill, a game Guyer lost 38-28, but it continues Thursday as the Wildcats will try to get their first win of the season, a year after starting 0-2 before winning the Class 4A Division I state championship.
That road will continue hours after the players say final farewells to their friend and teammate. And while Helal said Maki will be first and foremost on his mind, he knows his best friend wouldn’t want it that way.
“I can imagine him saying ‘I’m all right. You need to get up, stand up, move on and go on with your season,’” Helal said. “He wanted another state championship more than anyone. He wants us to succeed more than anyone on this team. To do that, we’ve got to play Colleyville Heritage and prove to people we’re going to survive and make it through this hardship and that nothing’s going to break us down.”
It will take time for Guyer’s coaches and players to be all right, but Helal said the outpouring of support from the entire area has been remarkable and a testament to the type of person his friend was.
“It backs up the fact that you didn’t have to know Nate to love him,” Helal said. “You could love him just from the stories you heard about him and all the fun things he’s been a part of and the way he is. He’s Nate Maki. You can’t copy him. There’s only going to be one Nate, and he’s gone. I’m going to miss him a lot. I’ll miss my brother.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872 and via Twitter at @aboedeker.