‘He’s still on the team’: South Meck to honor fallen player in the upcoming season
Austin drowned in Lake Norman in July, creating a hole that will be impossible to fill on the sidelines.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - When South Mecklenburg takes the field against Charlotte Catholic on Aug. 18, the Sabres will be without a key member of the locker room.
The team suddenly and unexpectedly lost rising junior safety Keith Austin when he drowned in Lake Norman in July, creating a hole that will be nearly impossible to fill on the sidelines.
“He made everybody feel welcome,” Austin’s football and rugby coach, Rick Norvell, said. “In the pictures, he had this…he was always smiling. That wasn’t made up, that was him.”
The sudden an unexpected loss sent shockwaves through the locker room.
“It’s hard to explain. I’m a grown man and it’s hard for me to understand...why a kid like that would go,” Norvell said. “So I know a 15, 16-year-old kid is having a hard time processing it.”
The way Austin’s teammates processed his tragic death was the only way they knew how — as a team.
“We’re all just like, a family, trying to get through this together,” Austin’s friend and teammate, Jack Flemings, said.
As they grieved together, the South Meck football team quickly decided that this upcoming season needed to be dedicated to Austin.
Even though he’s gone, he’s still on the team,” Austin’s friend and teammate, Nick Flemings, said. “I’m still playing for him, even if he’s not here.”
Jack and Nick are twins, and have considered Austin to be their unofficial triplet since the three became friends in middle school.
When they learned that Austin’s No. 21 jersey would go unworn for the next two years, they decided to alter their own jersey numbers accordingly.
“Yeah, Nick and I are going to be wearing 20 and 22,” Jack said. “Because we always had pictures with Keith on the inside, and us on the outside.”
He said it will feel like Austin is still between them when they take the field.
The team also plans on wearing helmet stickers with Austin’s face and number for every game.
“We’re not overflowing them with the emotion of the loss,” South Meck head coach Joe Evans said. “We’re not washing it away but we’re still remembering in our own little way.”
They said perhaps the best way to honor and remember Austin’s spirit, is to go out and play like him with every snap.
“I’m just going to play with the best of my ability for him,” Jack said. “Whatever the outcome, whether we win or lose, I’m just going to do my best for him.”
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