Dawson Fay hurts.
His body bears bruises from helmets over nine weeks of competition but his heart is heavy and his mind anguished. He survived a horrific car wreck in March, and his two best friends did not. He lives on feeling blessed, yet guilty.
Fay is Nevada Union High School’s record-setting running back who competes for a Grass Valley community eager for a return to glory. And he competes especially for Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner and the loss of friends that time does not heal.
“I think about them all the time, it’s constant,” Fay said in soft tones. “It’s still shocking. I miss them every day. I still have memories of what the car looked like.”
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They were on their way to the Central Coast for spring break, following their parents. Fay, Gardner and Nielson were struck head-on by a drunk driver on March 25 on Interstate 5, near Los Banos. Nielson was killed instantly. Gardner, sitting behind Nielson, died about four hours later in the hospital.
Fay suffered a fractured left hip and facial lacerations. His cuts and fracture have healed, and he is thankful for every day. He still wonders about being a teenager having had to attend the funeral of other teens.
“How did I survive?” Fay asks himself often and again in this interview with The Bee. “What are the chances that this would happen? I wonder what would have happened if we left a moment later from where we had lunch? I have a lot of guilt.
“I was very close to death. Their side of the car was demolished, and my (passenger side) was barely touched. I know I’m super lucky. I absolutely think Tyler and Justin are looking down on me with pride.”
He has a lot to be proud of, and a lot to play for on Friday night at Hooper Stadium. The field is surrounded by tall pines that make for a picturesque a setting. Nevada Union at 3-6 needs a home victory over Rio Linda to have a shot at securing the program’s first playoff berth since 2012.
A victory would do wonders for the morale of a program that has hurt plenty this decade, and for the Miners’ leading man.
Fay has rushed for 1,811 yards this season, 121 shy of the school single-season mark held by Jefferson Heidelberger since 2000. He already owns the Nevada Union career rushing mark previously held by Heidelberger, with a total of 3,599 yards.
Fay said he never runs alone. He has two brothers with him in spirit.
Fay switched to jersey No. 5 this season, worn by Nielson, a running back and linebacker last season when he was a senior. Gardner would have been a junior quarterback and linebacker this fall.
“In my 25 years in coaching, there’s no football handbook that prepares you for this,” Miners first-year coach Brad Sparks said. “Dawson’s handled it all remarkably well. I’ve seen his low points and he always bounces back. He’s motivated, works hard, does well in the classroom, is involved in community service. I really respect him.
“He had every reason to step away but he keeps coming back.”
Fay, at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, runs with a mixture of speed, elusiveness and power. He rushed for 333 yards and five touchdowns in a 53-21 win over River City, had 247 and four scores in a 59-34 triumph of Napa, and he rumbled for 172 and a TD in a 44-24 loss to Lincoln last week.
A 3.3 student, Fay dreams of a chance to play in college. He has fielded recruiting interest from Montana, Northern Arizona and Sacramento State, among others. He also has the attention of area coaches.
“Dawson Fay is a special talent,” Lincoln coach Chris Bean said. “You couldn’t tell whether it was the first run of the game or last run of the game, he only played one way: hard.
“There was no questioning the fact that he seemed to be playing for others. The courage that he’s shown after what he’s been through is inspiring.
Fay is a throwback Miner, from when football was king in the foothills. He grew up playing the sport, starting at 6 with his pal, Nielson, when the dream was to become a varsity star on Friday nights.
Nevada Union won 17 league championships from 1981-2009, numbers displayed prominently on the press box that oversees the stadium. The Miners claimed Sacramento City Championships in 1989, ‘90, ‘93, ‘94, 2004, 2005 and 2009, and they won four Sac-Joaquin Section championships in that stretch, the last in 2009 under longtime coach Dave Humphers, now coaching at River Valley in Yuba City.
But this decade has not been kind Nevada Union. Sparks inherited a program that went 0-10 in 2013 and had recent seasons of 1-9, 2-8 and 2-8. The school saw its enrollment drop from 3,000 in the glory days to 1,660 now, a staggering drop that would impair any program.
Families stopped moving into the region, and the closure of two saw mills played a role in the drop in population, and, ultimately, aided in the football program’s decline.
Competing in the brutal Sierra Foothill League in previous seasons did not help matters either, nor did low numbers on the junior varsity program last season, prompting the decision to fold. Nevada Union has a junior varsity team this season. One of the program’s greatest players, lineman Andrew Jackson, coaches the freshmen team.
But of the 40-man varsity roster today, 20 did not play the sport last season, adding to the coaching challenge for Sparks. He is a fiery and energized sort who has the attention of his team, including Fay, who calls his coach, “Sparky.”
“Football still matters here,” Sparks said. “But when a program has lost like this one has over the past five years, it takes time to get going. Not having a JV team last year really hurt us. This community still wants to win, but some still think we’re in the 1990s or 2000s, and we aren’t. It’s just different, and we need to start new traditions.”
Fay taped a $5 bill to the back plate of his shoulder pads, to recognize Nielson’s favorite number. Fay also wears game cleats Gardner would have worn this season.
Life is good, Fay said, because he still has one to live. His shy smile and good cheer do mask a lot of pain.
“My recovery has been really good,” Fay said. “It’s the mental part that’s hard. I have a lot of car anxiety for sure. Simple things like coming to a stop, I can get tense.
“My brother (Hayden) and family and friends have been great because Tyler and Justin are such a huge part of my life. I hear a song, and I think about them. And playing football lets me be me.”