In N.J. High School Football, a Victory Tempered by Grief – The New York Times

PHILADELPHIA — In a record year for gun violence at high school sporting events, Da’Vion Harper played a football game Wednesday with a somber tribute written on the shirt beneath his jersey: “R.I.P. Micah.” Beneath his helmet, Harper drew the number 10 on one cheek and a cross on the other.

Last Friday night, 10-year-old Micah Tennant attended a playoff game in southern New Jersey between Pleasantville High School and Camden High School. The game was interrupted in the third quarter by what the authorities are investigating as a retaliatory shooting. Three people were wounded, including Micah, a fifth grader who was apparently sitting behind the intended victim.

The game resumed Wednesday in a cavernous, but almost empty, N.F.L. stadium, closed to the public except for several hundred family and friends of the players. Hours before, Micah had died from a gunshot wound to the neck. What was intended to be an afternoon of renewal, resilience and defiance became another tragedy in what is a rare but increasingly worrisome occurrence — gunfire at high school sporting events, which are supposed to be among the most celebratory and safest places.

“I never heard a gunshot before,” Harper, 17, a wide receiver for Camden High School, said. His team won the resumed game, 22-0, but he said he felt a jarring conflict of elation and sadness.

“He was so young,” Harper said of Micah. “He had a long life ahead. That bullet wasn’t meant for him.”

It was the 23rd shooting at, or related to, a high school sporting event this year, a bleak record, according to the National Center for Spectator Sport Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi. This year, for the first time since data tracking began in 1970, more than half of high school shootings (42 of 76) have occurred after the school day ended, according to the center. And more than 50 percent of those after-school shootings have been at athletic contests.

“In the U.S., we’re playing a really dangerous game right now, where the overwhelming majority of people are focusing on that school-day period” while the trend shows that shootings are increasingly occurring after school, said Justin Kurland, the center’s safety project manager for interscholastic athletics.

He added, “What’s driving those shootings is interscholastic athletics.”

At high school football games, where metal detectors or hand-held wands are less likely to be present for security than at professional and college games, spectators are “incredibly vulnerable and nobody’s paying attention to it,” Mr. Kurland said.

Fans who attended Wednesday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles, entered the stadium through metal detectors. Athletic officials, the police and administrators said they were considering ways to beef up security at New Jersey high school games, though few people probably want interscholastic competition athletics to become yet another place with an airport-like security routine.

“Some of our schools do wand people down before they come in,” said Jack Dubois, the assistant director in charge of football at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. “You might be seeing more and more of that.”

Sean Riggin, the police chief of Pleasantville, N.J., a poor community, just west of Atlantic City, where Friday’s disrupted game was played, said security procedures would be reviewed, but he added that they should not exceed the threat. “I think a real big consideration for the school district and myself is that we don’t end up with kids playing football in prison yards,” he said.

The playing of the final 17 minutes of the playoff game on Wednesday evoked incongruous images. Cheerleaders waved pom-poms. Eagles Coach Doug Pederson and some of his players greeted the high school teams with pregame handshakes. Loud music and geysers of pyrotechnic smoke welcomed Pleasantville and Camden onto the field.

But there were also therapy dogs on the sidelines. A moment of silence was held for Micah. His name and age were written on helmets and socks. The public-address announcer made a frail declaration that “acts of violence do not win.”

Chris Sacco, Pleasantville High School’s coach, said: “You’re in a state semifinal game and you want to win. And then, on the other hand, it’s like: Should we really even be here because of the situation that happened?”

Mr. Sacco learned of Micah’s death around 11 a.m. Wednesday. He took his players into the school auditorium and told them. They grew emotional, and he told them to hug one another. According to Mr. Sacco’s wife, Micah had a cousin on the team and another cousin who took photographs at games.

Jolanda Martinez, 16, a Pleasantville cheerleader, said, “It’s devastating that he had to lose his life.”

At Camden High School, Coach Dwayne Savage said he heard contradictory reports about Micah’s condition. As the team bus drove past the hospital where he had been in intensive care, it stopped. Players held a moment of silence before crossing the Delaware River into Philadelphia.

With Camden ahead, 6-0, in the third quarter last Friday night, more than 1,000 people packed the stands at Pleasantville High School. The home team was having its best season in 43 years. As a punt was deflected, popping sounds in the stands seemed to some like fireworks. Instead, it was a man with a gun.

Kenny Smith, 18, Camden’s starting center, said he saw a girl alone and crying and hurried her beneath the stands, telling her to stay down. He told her that she could hug him or hold his hand until she felt safe. “I didn’t get up until she got up,” he said.

The girl’s father confirmed the story. As it turned out, she was the 10-year-old sister of one of Smith’s teammates and she had been on her way to the concession stand.

Not until they arrived at the N.F.L. stadium on Wednesday did some Camden players learn that Micah had died. Many could not help but replay the chaos of last Friday night — gunshots, scared players running through a fence, a referee going to the ground for safety, fans and players dashing beneath the bleachers.

Alvin Wyatt, 31, of Atlantic City, was arrested by a Pleasantville police officer near the end zone. He was charged on Wednesday with murder in Micah’s death. He also faces two counts of attempted murder in the shooting of a 15-year-old boy who was grazed by a bullet and a man named Ibn Abdullah, 27.

Mr. Abdullah was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon. He and Mr. Wyatt have been linked to a homicide in Atlantic City that occurred about two weeks ago and “may have led to this incident,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said in an interview. Four other men at last Friday’s game have also been charged with unlawful possession of a weapon.

Micah was apparently sitting behind Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Tyner said, and the two were not at the game together. “Sometimes incidents are overdramatized, but this is every bit of a tragedy,” Mr. Tyner said. “When you see a 10-year-old and how full of life he was, it really makes you question humanity.”

Thoughts far weightier than those about football were never far from the minds of the players on Wednesday night. Darian Chestnut, Camden High School’s quarterback, scored on a touchdown run, knelt in the end zone, put his hands together as if in prayer and pointed toward the sky in tribute to Micah. He told reporters that as a boy, he had the same dreams that Micah must have had, and “now he won’t get the chance to do something like this.”

Victory was tempered by grief. Mr. Savage, Camden’s coach, said football was supposed to be a safe haven for his players to forget about their problems. But, he added: “The shooting messed up the innocence of football. It takes away the innocence of kids, makes them grow up too early.”