LaFAYETTE, Ga. - A heaviness shrouded the football practice field at LaFayette High School on many midsummer mornings, and it had little to do with the oppressive heat the days would bring.
As the Ramblers pushed their bodies through drills while coaches barked instructions, teammate Austin Whitten was working hard in Atlanta, trying to learn to walk again.
Last year's surprising freshman defensive end was injured in a freak accident this summer at the LaFayette swimming pool. His spine was damaged in an innocent-looking dive.
The community was rocked further by the news that three teenagers were diagnosed with cancer in the span of a few weeks. In such a small town, the bad news affected nearly everyone, including Tab Gable, the veteran football coach known as a strict disciplinarian.
"It has been tough on our community, I'll be honest," Gable said. "We've got four young people who are in our thoughts. The First Baptist Church took a group on a mission trip, and they started talking about it. They asked some questions that were very deep, and they just couldn't understand why this was happening. They're all good kids. It has had a big effect on our community.
"We lost one [football player] because of it. I don't know if he was afraid something like that could happen to him playing football or what. I don't know, but what can you say? I wish I had the answers for them."
Gable admitted that several players had not seen Whitten since his accident, mainly because they still couldn't understand it. Senior Cody Dallas, when asked to sum up what Whitten's absence meant to the team, tried to keep his answer on a football level.
"It's a tough loss because he was going to play both ways for us," Dallas said. "It will be impossible to replace him on the field, but we have to try."
While the team, its coaches and the community continue to search for answers, Gable knows the season will start soon and he has a team to prepare. He also hopes Whitten's teammates have learned a valuable life lesson.
"Austin is working his tail off just to walk again, and the good Lord has blessed us with ability and health ... so we better not feel sorry for ourselves," Gable said. "I get very upset when I see someone moping. We owe Austin more than that."