Pleasantville Ready to Put Best Foot Forward After Tragic Events
Imagine being a head coach of a high school football team that is trying to win a game against a very tough opponent for a chance to play for a championship. You’re running up and down the sideline, coaching your guys up, dissecting every play, every mistake, calling out plays, watching for something from the other team you might have seen on film. You are so laser focused on what you’re doing that everything else, all the noises from the crowd, are completely drowned out.
Until they are not.
Until gunshots start ringing out 15 yards behind you.
It takes a few seconds to understand what is happening, then in a split second you realize that your wife and three young children are sitting up in the stands — as gunfire is erupting.
Pleasantville football coach Chris Sacco lives and breath for Friday nights. He works himself into a frenzy before a game, so much so that he often jokes that he might have a heart attack right there on the sideline. He’s poured so much time, effort and energy into the Greyhounds’ program the last five years, and this past Friday night his team was less than an hour from possibly going to a sectional championship game. The Greyhounds, the No. 1 seed in the Central Jersey Group 2 playoffs, were trailing Camden just 6-0 late in the third quarter in front of a huge crowd. It was everything a high school football coach could ask for.
Until it wasn’t.
“It was chaotic, but I think our staff handled the field aspect of it extremely well and I give them all the credit in the world. They got the kids off the field immediately, the cheerleading staff got those girls off the field immediately, and once I realized within a 5- or 10-second span that they had them going, I just ran up to the bleachers to check on my wife and kids,” Sacco said during a phone interview with Glory Days this evening. “I had about 25 family members there — it was a scary moment because you don’t know what you’re going to run up into, and see. It was definitely scary. For a few minutes we couldn’t find my two youngest children, but thank God my cousins had taken them immediately and we found them about 10 minutes later. It was a chaotic 10 minutes, for sure.”
Multiple gunshots rang out, three people were shot — including a 10-year-old boy named Micah, who currently is in critical condition in the hospital. Police arrested several men from Atlantic City in connection with the shooting. Social media timelines were overflowing with updates, reactions, emotions. The words “Pleasantville” and “Camden” were trending on Twitter in a matter of minutes. Pleasantville players and coaches were huddled in the school for hours as local police sorted the situation out. Then, the NJSIAA had a decision to make as well. How, when and where would this game be resumed? Ultimately, the Philadelphia Eagles responded and offered up Lincoln Financial Field, where the teams will meet at 4 p.m. on Wednesday to finish the roughly 17 minutes of game time that is left to play, with the winner meeting Cedar Creek on Nov. 30 instead of this coming weekend.
It has been a whirlwind couple of days for the Pleasantville and Camden football programs, but Sacco said his players are determined not to let what happened in the third quarter of Friday night’s game define the 2019 season, or what the Greyhounds have been building the past five seasons under Sacco and his staff. The players are preached to constantly about doing the right thing, carrying themselves with pride — not only in themselves, but in their school, in their town. And as difficult as it has been, the players are beginning to see the positives. That Wednesday afternoon will provide them the opportunity to represent Pleasantville, and what is good about a school, town and community that hasn’t had it easy.
“From Friday to today — today was a really good, inspired practice, the mood was good and the energy was good. They are excited for the opportunities they have. One, to continue this game and hopefully win it, and two, to play at The Linc. It was an unfortunate event, and to see them Friday after it all happened was really hard. So, to see where they are at today was very positive. It put the staff and players in a good mood. We had a team dinner, and it was just a good night,” Sacco said. “You never, ever want to think of this or have to go through this. We didn’t have a plan for this. It was hard. We sat down Friday night and said we were going to give it the night, and on Saturday we would touch base with the players. Priority No. 1 was making sure everybody was healthy and safe. From there, we had a decision to make as to what we wanted to do about the game. We really just left it up to them and said we would support them either way, but they had to let us know what they wanted to do. I said, ‘don’t let this moment define who we are and how far we’ve come, but you have our 100 percent support in whatever you want to do.’ Immediately they responded that they wanted to play. It was nice to see that they wanted to get back out there, and then actually seeing them Monday and today and how excited they are — and the Eagles showing that generosity and stepping up and letting us play there, that just took it to another level. At the end of the day, these are just kids who want to play football. There’s a lot on the line in this game and they want to complete the game, one way or another.”
During our phone conversation, Sacco replayed the moments of Friday night and this weekend, and said that — to a man — no one wearing maroon and white was going to give up the chance to go out there and play their hearts out in an effort to try to bring a title to this town. And to represent their families, and everything they stand for, win or lose.
“We hung out at the school for a couple hours and tried to process everything, what our next steps were. It was a long night trying to replay everything — did we do everything right? Did we do everything in our power to make sure everyone was safe? It took a while to relax a little bit. Unfortunately with Micah, we hope he pulls through with his situation,” Sacco said. “The older guys on this team didn’t want this taken away from them. They have worked very hard to get to this point. This is not just a one-year build to get here, and to make it this far in back-to-back years — we fell short in this round last year, and they really wanted to win this game. To have that happen in the middle of it, those guys didn’t want to end the season like that.
“Yesterday morning we went out to the field together as a team, stayed out there for about 20 minutes and walked around a little bit. Then we had a good film session and practice, and we were out there today for an extended period of time,” he continued. “The kids were excited, they had the music playing today over the speakers — it’s important to get back to some kind of normal routine, and get these guys flowing into a normal pregame routine. That was important today.”
The tragic events of Friday night have brought a tight-knit group even closer, Sacco said.
“You never want to see a tragedy or a negative event bring everybody closer together. This was already a close team, but I think over the last couple of days they realized how much they truly care about each other, how much the staff cares about them, and they are not taking anything for granted,” he said. “They’ve become an even closer team, and that will be like that forever. These guys will have a lot in of positive memories. Unfortunately, they’ll have this as well, but they’ll have a lot of positive memories from this season, and hopefully more to come in the next couple of weeks that they’ll be able to reflect upon the rest of their lives and appreciate.”
At about 3:45 p.m. tomorrow, Sacco and his coaching staff will have the opportunity to address their team — in an NFL locker room. He knows that when the Greyhounds take the field, they’ll have the eyes of everyone who cares anything about South Jersey football on them — whether it be the select family members who are allowed to attend, the thousands who will be watching the live stream at nj.com, or anyone glued to their Twitter accounts for updates. He’s thought long and hard about what he will say to his players, but there’s no need to read from a script. There won’t be one.
“I have a couple ideas going around in my head, but it’s one of those things you can’t prepare for because it’s going to be an emotional scene. The environment will be different. You always have an idea of what you want to say, but then you look into the kids’ eyes and you just start speaking from the heart and what it means to be there for them. It’s going to be unique, but it is what it is and we have to adjust, figure it out and get it done,” Sacco said. “We tell them all the time that very rarely in life — and unfortunately these guys know more so than other players and kids from other areas — you can’t always control what happens to you, but you can definitely have control over the outcome. That’s what I’ve told them the past couple of days. We couldn’t control what happened, but we’re still playing and we still have control over the outcome of this game, and that’s one thing we can have a say in, so we need to make sure we put our best foot forward.”