CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. – The opening night of Shenendehowa's football season brought with it the usual adrenaline fueled pomp and circumstance. Hidden underneath was the cold reality that devastated the community just nine months ago.
"I've had a routine for quite a few years and that routine is broken now," said Mike Stewart, the father of Christopher Stewart.
"I don't think there's a day that goes by where people in the Shenendehowa School Community don't think about them and their families," Shenendehowa Athletic Director Christopher Culnan said.
Fresh off his senior season, captain Christopher Stewart was driving home his girlfriend and two friends from a basketball game on December 1st when his SUV was rear ended, causing it to crash on the Northway. Stewart and fellow senior Deanna Rivers were killed, while Shaker senior Bailey Wind and Shen junior Matthew Hardy were seriously hurt.
"You know, it was very emotional throughout the whole year and it still is for a lot of our players and the entire community," Shenendehowa football coach Brian Clausen said Friday afternoon.
Days after the crash, thousands came together on the Shen football field to find solace and honor the young victims with a candlelight vigil. The evening was punctuated by the appearance of Hardy, who required use of an ambulance and wheel chair to be there.
On Friday evening, Hardy was back between those very lines, this time, leaning only on the emotional support of his brothers in green and the roar of the crowd after he was the final player announced during the starting lineups.
"It's a very special moment for not only Matt, but our whole football team and our entire community," said Clausen, who was one of the first to greet Hardy back on December 4th when he was taken out of the ambulance.
"I think you also see the community who are rallying around that,” said Shenendehowa Superintendent Dr. L. Oliver Robinson, whose son is a member of the football team. “The last time we were here, it was for a very solemn occasion.”
For a community overcome by tragedy, Hardy's return to the field marked one more step of the healing process. When number 19 found the end zone in the game's waning moments, scoring the final touchdown, he provided a symbol of hope that a community can recover from impossible heartache.
"We've had some rough times and continue to have some months ahead of us that we have to deal with,” said Stewart, who attended the game with his wife, Regina. “But we'll do that and the community continues to help us out."
"I just wanted to make Deanna proud, Deanna and Chris," said Hardy, who was interviewed at the end of the live Time Warner Cable Sports broadcast. “Wearing this number 19, I just wanted to do it in honor of her.”
Shenendehowa defeated Columbia 34-10.