There are no amount of words to truly and accurately describe the level of adversity the Joplin football team overcame on Saturday.
And that was before the opening kickoff between the Joplin Eagles and Webb City Cardinals at 7 p.m. at Cardinal Stadium.
On Wednesday, tragedy struck the Joplin community when sophomore offensive lineman Kadin Roberts-Day passed away from cardiac arrest at Mercy Hospital following an indoor practice.
The devastating news shattered the hearts and emotional stability of everyone close to the Roberts-Day family and JHS program.
“Wednesday night, the coaches and a few players went to the hospital (to be there for Kadin and his family),” Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said. “After Kadin’s passing, I sent out a message to the team to meet at Junge (Field). We met that night and talked for a while. It was mostly just sitting there in shock. One of the team members said a prayer, and essentially we just sat there and cried.”
For many of the young men on the Joplin roster, it was the first time experiencing a loss of life to someone close to them. The grieving process is different for everyone. The football program, along with the entire staff at the high school, wanted to make sure every avenue of counseling was available to anyone in need.
The Eagles met as a team once again on Thursday morning. Kadin’s mother, LaShonda Roberts, and several family members were present.
“We talked about everything that happened and our options in terms of playing or not playing,” Jasper said. “Of course, LaShonda stepped up and said that Kadin would not only want us to play, but he would want us to win. We talked about it some more and the team decided they wanted to play.
“LaShonda and her family have been a big rallying point for us. She has been a rock through this terrible experience. When she called the coaches and players into the room at the hospital, she gave four or five statements that I will never forget.”
Among the family members at the meeting was Kadin’s twin brother, Kaian Roberts-Day, who is a sophomore running back for the Eagles. While everyone associated with the program was hurting, it was a point of emphasis by every coach and player to make sure Kaian knew he would never be alone in the grieving process.
“My wife is a twin, and I know how close she is with her sister, and I can’t imagine anything more difficult for a young man to go through than this,” Jasper said. “I really think having Kaian with us has really helped this team a lot. We needed to turn our attention to someone who lost a brother. Helping Kaian in any way possible was our biggest goal as a team.”
Ultimately, the game between the Eagles and Cardinals was moved back to Saturday to allow Joplin more time to grieve before taking the field in honor of their fallen teammate. Though the game was still scheduled to take place, Jasper made it a point to hear from every team member to find out if they were capable of taking the field.
“We wanted to coach them up as much as possible, but it was the players who were driving the bus,” Jasper said. “The last thing I wanted to do was put any of them in a situation they could not handle. I told them everyone handles this differently, and there is no correct way to grieve. I told them to not be ashamed about how they were feeling, we just needed to know so we could help them.
“It is a team game. Everyone has to function together, but we have kids functioning at different levels at different times depending on where they are at in the grieving process. That was the tricky part.”
The Eagles decided to meet again at Junge Field on Thursday evening for a practice before having the team meal, but the practice was ultimately used as a way to come together in a time of sadness and mourning.
“There were several moments throughout the day on Thursday where myself, several of the coaches and a lot of the players were not doing well,” Jasper said. “We made the decision that after we were done eating, we were just going to get a bag of balls out, throw them around and take care of each other.”
Joplin took the field together on Friday for a typical walk-through practice in preparation for the matchup with Webb City. The team ate breakfast together on Saturday morning and went over their plans to honor Kadin leading up to the game.
Jasper wanted his team to spend as much time together before the game, so after a few hours of free time following breakfast, the Eagles met again to spend the afternoon with each other.
“At 1 o’clock, we brought them back, and they played ping pong, video games, shot the basketball around and watched college football together,” Jasper said. “At that point, we focused on doing whatever it took to be OK in that moment. We wanted to keep them busy and together. At 4, we loaded the bus and focused on taking care of business at Webb City.”
Leading up to the game, Joplin was led onto the field by Kaian, holding the school flag, followed by his mother, LaShonda, and the Roberts-Day family, with the team trailing behind. Every person in attendance was on their feet showing support.
“I wanted LaShonda and her family to be a part of the experience, but I wanted it to be OK with her,” Jasper said. “We were all drawing off of her strength.”
Following a moment of silence, Kaian, along with seniors Isaiah Davis, Elijah Eminger, Blake Tash and Coach Jasper walked to midfield locking hands as part of the team captains ceremony. Kaian and Davis clutched Kadin’s No. 63 jersey during the walk.
The Eagles honored Kadin on the first play of the game, lining up with 10 players on the field and leaving the sophomore’s tackle position empty.
For two and a half hours, the Eagles channeled their heartache into a football game. Joplin jumped out to 28-7 lead by halftime, and led 35-7 with 5:28 to play in the third. Webb City scored 21 unanswered points to trim Joplin’s lead to 35-28 with 9:22 left to play. The Eagles held off the Cardinals the rest of the way to preserve the emotional win, with the final score adding up to 63, Kadin’s number.
“Playing that game gave them a chance to play for something bigger than anything we have ever played for before,” Jasper said. “We had team goals at the start of the year, and one of our players who was a part of those goals was no longer with us. We wanted to go out and play our hearts out for him and his family.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the boys. They went out and executed on very little game planning. For those kids, who had everything else on their minds, to go out there and play the way they did, withstanding all of the adversity they did, I have never been a part of anything like that. That night will be something I’ll always remember, and Kadin is someone who I’ll never forget.”