Joe Davidson

Grieving at Grant for player death is felt by high school football community, near and far

Out with a leg injury, Inderkum’s Derrick Henderson, left, checks cellphone messages with teammate Ryan Davis.
Out with a leg injury, Inderkum’s Derrick Henderson, left, checks cellphone messages with teammate Ryan Davis. Special to the Bee

Support helps the healing.

The regional high school football community has offered words of encouragement and gestures of grief in sharing the profound sadness and shock that has stricken one of the state’s most storied programs.

The Grant Pacers are coping with the loss of starting cornerback Jaulon Clavo, who was shot in a car well off campus hours before the kickoff of a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoff opener on Friday and later died.

The impact was felt in nearby Natomas and right on through Placer County and Elk Grove and down the Central Valley. There was a moment of silence before scores of games on Friday, including at Del Oro and Elk Grove. Players who had two-hour bus trips for out-of-town games sat stoically in their seats on the ride back, poring over news accounts of the violence and trying to comprehend what it all means.

“We’re stunned, sad, at a loss,” Del Oro wide receiver-defensive back Trey Udoffia said. “We had that moment of silence, and it was hard. It really hit me. The worst thing imaginable for a team, a school and a community is to lose a student like that. Can’t imagine how we’d get through that.”

Granite Bay players were numb to the news, too. The Grizzlies could face the Pacers next weekend in a second-round game. In a moving tribute of solidarity, ribbons in Grant’s colors, blue and yellow, were tied in a bow on a big sign in Placer County that reads “Welcome to Granite Bay.”

“That makes me very proud to know that people of Granite Bay did that,” said Grizzlies senior star and team leader Sam Cusano. “Grant needs everyone’s support. I’m happy to know so many are behind Grant, and we’re praying for them and those families. We’re all upset. We were in shock, and we’re still saddened by it.”

In Natomas on Friday, Inderkum played Lincoln in a Division III playoff game, but the focus for many Tigers was their friends in Del Paso Heights. Many Inderkum players know Grant athletes, having gone to school with them and played sports with or against them since their toddler years. Clavo spent his freshman year at Inderkum.

Tigers star Jimmie Johnson said after his team’s 82-32 victory that he dedicated his 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns to Clavo, his cousin. Tears streamed down his face as he talked of Clavo, saying: “I was getting taped up for the game when I heard he got shot in the neck and died. He was a great guy, and we grew up together. He always made me happy. I saw him last weekend ... but I didn’t get to say I loved him.”

Interesting thing about teenage football players. They try to look tough, scowling for photos, and sometimes talk tough, but deep down, they’re very vulnerable, very human. They’re still kids. When real life issues crash down like this, everyone feels it, coaches said.

“Football isn’t important when something like this happens,” Inderkum coach Terry Stark said. “Our players knew (Clavo), but you play the game and you mourn after. Some of our guys were breaking down and crying during halftime, and you just embrace them. It’s just really, really sad.”

The news hit Beyer of Modesto, the team that was supposed to play Grant, too.

“My heart goes out to the coaches, players, the family of those players and the community of Grant High,” Beyer coach Doug Severe told The Modesto Bee. “I know how much I love my kids. The game of football becomes such a minute detail when talking about the life of young people. That’s someone’s child, a teammate, a friend, somebody who won’t be at school on Monday.”

Grant defends image – Grant isn’t just trying to overcome this loss and wounds that never will fully heal. It is again trying to protect and defend its image. Grant students, teachers, coaches and community members have for years told me that they want their school to be defined by something positive and not by nearby violence.

I found it striking that Clavo and his football friends drove back to Grant after the shooting, and not to a hospital. They did so, Grant coaches said, because they felt safe at their school.

Grant games are safe. In my 26 years at The Bee, Pacers events have always had plenty of security, and scores of rival programs say their most enjoyable road games are those in Del Paso Heights. This isn’t a Grant problem, this shooting. It’s a society problem.

But gunshots are frightening, and they leave a domino effect in prep sports. Burbank High in south Sacramento is very much like Grant in terms of campus and community pride; both are located in hardscrabble neighborhoods where sports are a positive outlet. Burbank several years ago had its Friday night games moved to Saturday afternoons for a spell after shots were fired more than a mile away from campus.

In 1996, I covered a Grant home game for The Bee against rival Johnson. I saw a car peeling out of the Grant High parking lot and down the street when someone fired a shot into the air. To ensure a sense of public safety, Grant moved its games to Saturday afternoons, and angry at the perception that it was cast as a troubled school, the Pacers stormed to a section championship.

Grant will host Beyer at 5 p.m. Monday as Grant coaches made it clear that they did not want a neutral site. They didn’t want an off-campus incident to win out.

As the top seed, Grant would continue to host games as long as it wins. Grant could have those games on Saturday afternoons. And the best way to honor Clavo and the Pacers would be for a flood of Friday night football fans to attend those Saturday games.

Bee correspondent Mark Billingsley contributed to this report.