Derrick Henderson sat in a wheelchair Tuesday afternoon, crutches by his side.
The Inderkum High School senior linebacker watched his teammates practice and rubbed his sore left knee, tender to the touch because of torn ligaments. The sorrow in his face went beyond being sidelined for the remainder of a season of promise.
“People ask me about my knee,” Henderson said in soft tones, “but I don’t care about my knee right now. I’ll recover. I lost a brother. That’s what really hurts.”
Athletes often call teammates “brother” even if they’re not blood related. The “brother” to whom Henderson refers is Jaulon “JJ” Clavo, the Grant senior cornerback who was fatally shot last Friday shortly before the Pacers were to host Beyer of Modesto in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoff game.
For Henderson and the 11-0 Tigers, their lost brother will serve as powerful motivation this Friday night as Inderkum hosts a second-round game against Manteca in its quest to win the program’s first section football championship after three prior trips to the D-III title game.
The Tigers were among the dozens of area players who showed their support for Grant on Monday night before the Pacers defeated Beyer 35-0 in a rescheduled game.
In that gathering was Jimmie Johnson, Inderkum’s versatile senior playmaker andClavo’s cousin. They grew up together, took the same classes as Inderkum freshmen and visited regularly. Johnson said the Tigers, Grant’s nearby neighbors in Natomas, share the Pacers’ grief.
Johnson said that even tough football players can cry, adding, “I’ve cried a lot; there’s no weakness in that.”
“I talked to JJ’s mom after the Grant game,” Johnson said. “I’ll be a pallbearer for the (Nov. 28) funeral. It’s hard to get through. Broke my heart. No fairness to this. Gone in a blink of an eye.”
I’ve cried a lot. There’s no weakness in that.
Jimmie Johnson, Inderkum senior
Inderkum concluded Tuesday’s practice, the sun setting behind them, by raising their hands to the sky, their five fingers representing Clavo’s jersey No. 5.
“Five to the sky,” Johnson said.
Inderkum is similar to Grant in that there are a lot of students from economically challenged backgrounds. Many students need athletics as a positive outlet. And they need a coach to help guide them.
Terry Stark turned Inderkum from a new school trying to navigate its way in football against established programs 10 years ago into a postseason regular. The Tigers have won eight of the past nine Tri-County League championships and have sent 30 players to schools of at all levels on athletic scholarships in the past five years, and more are expected from this team. Stark is sure to scold lack of effort in one moment and to offer hugs in trying times, such as last Friday when he consoled players in the locker room at the half when news hit that Clavo had died.
“Kids need football and they need each other,” Stark said. “A third of our kids have divorced parents or no fathers at all at home. I feel privileged to coach these boys, teaching them to give a great effort every day, 365 days a year. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s what we do.”
Stark said he doesn’t fish or golf. He’s a physical education teacher and coach, every day.
“It’s what I do,” Stark said, insisting he can’t do it alone without the help of coaching assistants Tod Hamasaki and Bert Salinas. “These are my students. They’re sons to me. Sometimes we’re with them 12 hours a day, in class, lunch, football. Every year, we break them in, mold them, bring them together. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but it’s always worth it. We have a great group this season.”
Stark said he urges every player after practices and games “to be careful out there.”
When something like this happens, football doesn’t matter, but it really does matter. A lot of people need football right now.
Terry Stark, Inderkum coach
“The intersection (where Clavo was shot), I’ve driven through that 200 times the last 10 years,” Stark said. “It should be a safe area. I played semi-pro football there in my 20s. Doesn’t make sense. When something like this happens, football doesn’t matter, but it really does matter. A lot of people need football right now.”
Football has provided Will Roberts and Raekwon Turner a physical outlet to counter their classroom brawn. Roberts, a center, is a 4.5 GPA student. Turner, a running back, is a 4.0 student – both are taking advanced-placement courses.
While Roberts is a three-year starter, Turner went from reserve running back in 2014 to leading rusher. His hard work in the weight room has paid off with 1,498 yards and 19 touchdowns for the Tigers. Johnson has rushed for 987 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he has five touchdown catches from quarterback Trajon Cotton.
Henderson was averaging 10 1/2 tackles a game, and had rushed for 14 touchdowns before going down with a knee injury. He is the school’s career-tackles leader with more than 300.
Turner said he is being raised by a single mom and credits Stark and the other coaches as “real mentors for us. They teach us about the game, life lessons.”
Turner said the Tigers will keep Clavo close to their hearts as they bear down on a championship. He said he was moved by the support Grant has received.
“That’s the beauty of football and our community of Sacramento – people care,” he said.