This night was supposed to be about a seasonal rite for the Del Paso Heights community – the beginning of another championship quest for its perennial prep football power, the Grant High School Pacers.
But three days after Grant’s first-round playoff showdown against Beyer High School of Modesto was postponed after a horrific act of violence, the rescheduled game was no longer just a title quest. It was about a search for healing, about embracing and protecting vulnerable teens.
And it was about JJ.
Grant senior Jaulon “JJ” Clavo, 17, was supposed to be taking the field as the Pacers’ star cornerback, as a gifted athlete and high-achieving student who dreamed of playing for University of Oregon and, later, in the NFL.
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Instead, he was shot dead Friday while stopping for some pregame fast food with four teammates.
So Monday night, his teammates rushed onto the home team’s Mike Alberghini Field to the hip-hop sounds of “Get Stupid” by Mac Dre, Clavo’s favorite. They encircled his mother, Nicole Clavo, at midfield, showering her with cheers and devotion.
“These young men are all my sons,” said Nicole Clavo before Grant’s 35-0 victory. “Most of them were at my house every day of the week. I never knew who was coming to dinner. Now their tears are my tears. Their strength is my strength.”
The 10-1 Pacers paid homage to their fallen teammate on the first defensive series as his No. 5 jersey was carried out to the field, near where Jaulon Clavo would have lined up, before Beyer’s first offensive play. Grant jumped out to a 28-0 lead over Beyer in the second quarter.
From the sidelines, numerous Sacramento region football rivals turned out in an unusual show of support for the Pacers. Young men, who would normally be looking to topple them with fierce blocks and tackles, encircled the field wearing multicolored school football jerseys and later joined Grant players for a silent prayer on the field.
Outside the stadium, Myrtis McCray, a retired state worker from Carmichael, stuffed bills into a donation jar for Clavo’s family. The mother of three adult-aged children said she felt “compelled” to be there Monday to honor a fallen 17-year-old she never knew.
“He was trying to do something with his life. He was on the right track,” said McCray, who had donned the blue and gold colors of Grant High. “It hurts my heart. We need more love, more hugging.”
Brandon Jackson, 16, a member of the Grant varsity basketball team, just wished he could have his friend back. Jackson, who has known Clavo since junior high, huddled with his teammates near a line of candles and posted signs reading, “Forever in our hearts, Clavo #5,” “JJ, son, brother and friend” and “Once a Pacer, always a Pacer.”
“He was funny. He was smart. I’ve never seen him mad,” Jackson said. And then the teen reflected on the grieving Grant community.
“It’s sad. It makes you wonder if it can happen to anybody,” he said. “But this community is strong. We got stronger because of Jaulon.”
The tragedy brought home a searing reality this year in Sacramento County, where Clavo became the 14th teenager to die of homicide.
Three of the teens, including Clavo, were killed in Police Patrol District 2, which encompasses the North Sacramento area around Del Paso Boulevard and Del Paso Heights. That area has had 11 homicides this year, part of a 35 percent spike in violent crime.
Sacramento police are still looking for the person or people who fired into a car driven by Clavo after he and five teammates stopped at a fast food restaurant and were headed back to campus. Teammate Malik Johnson, who was shot in the arm in the attack, memorialized his friend, JJ, as “my brother, whom I love to death” at a Saturday gathering on campus.
Steven Richardson, 14, a Grant freshman who is on the basketball team, said the tragedy made him promise his mother that he will seek the company of friends – or his mom – as a measure of personal safety. But Jackson said he doesn’t want anyone assuming the worst for his school and community.
“Everyone on the news said this (killing) was near Grant, and people thought it was at Grant,” Jackson said, striving to correct the impression. “This is a strong, powerful school with a lot of spirit. It is a safe environment.”
On Monday evening, Cierra Nash, who graduated from Grant in 2014, rushed back to be part of the environment again. Now studying fashion merchandizing at American River College, she volunteered at a table to collect donations for Clavo’s family.
In addition to the people lining up with small amounts of cash, Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins earlier pledged to pay for the funeral. He wrote “JJ” on his shoes for Sunday night’s game against the Toronto Raptors, calling the acts “my responsibility as a child of God.”
For her part, Nash came to the game as a member of the Grant family and Del Paso Heights community. She said she wants justice served to JJ’s killer – and for the assailant to understand the strength of the community.
“When you’re part of the Pacer family, you help out,” Nash said. “When one of our people is hurt, we hurt. But this is a community that comes together. And I want you to think twice about attacking anyone here – because we are the strongest of people.”