Number honoring former Sunlake HS football player returns to field

Sports

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – What is the meaning of 42?

“Number 42,” said Chase Brownell, a junior on the Sunlake High School football team, “is the definition of ‘Seahawk Tough.’”

“If we had 11 guys that all could wear 42,” said Trey Burdick, who is the head coach of the Seahawks, “we would never lose a game.”

“It means a lot for the school and for the football community,” Justin Bethards, a junior on the team, told 8 On Your Side’s Gabrielle Shirley.

“It shows you can never quit, give everything 100 percent effort,” said Zeph Johnson, who is entering his sophomore season with the Seahawks.

“We have to have the constant thought in the back of our head,” added Brownell, “to never give up like Xavier.”

Xavier Johnson, who is nicknamed “X,” was a fullback and a linebacker for the Seahawks football team. X is a forever member of the Seahawks football family. He is also an inspiration.

“Honestly,” admitted Brownell, “I do not know if any other kid would have been able to get through what X has been through.”

When X was only 16 years old, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a tubing accident. He is now confined to a wheelchair.

“It was the most difficult day that my wife and I have ever had,” said X’s father, Ross Johnson.

X’s tube hit a dock.

Johnson recalled a fraction of the questions that had been spiraling through his mind on that day. “Was he going to pull through? How serious was this? What does it look like not years down the road but that night and the next day?”

X spent the next five weeks in a medically induced coma. After the accident, the football team decided to retire his number, number 42.

“As a dad and as a coach,” said Johnson, “you always want your kid’s number retired but you do not want it for the reason that we are going through.”

We will fast forward four years. The date is May 17, 2019. The Seahawks are playing in their spring football game and 42 is on the field. The number ran out of retirement on the back of the player who best defines “Seahawk Tough.”

“42 does not have to be the greatest athlete or the greatest football player,” said Coach Burdick, “but he has to be the best man on the team and that is why Damian is 42.”

Damian Riewold, who will proudly wear the number for his final high school football season, described how he felt when he first stepped onto the field.

“It felt like I was not just playing for myself but I was playing for X too,” he said. “He was with me on the field.”

The idea to give the number to one exceptional player every season traveled from Burdick to Johnson. He called Johnson to ask him for his approval.

“I probably did not have a lot of words in that conversation,” said Johnson as he struggled to control his emotions. “I know what 42 means to my family but to know that it meant that much to other people was pretty overwhelming.”

The players, including X’s younger brother, Zeph, felt overwhelmed and overjoyed too.

“If I had to pick anybody on this football team to wear 42,” he said, “it would be Damian. I look up to Damian as an older brother, like another brother to X. He made me a better football player and I love that Damian gets to wear 42.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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