They gathered about 2,000 strong in the Hartsville High arena on Wednesday after school to celebrate a special kind of homecoming for their fallen teammate, classmate and friend, Ronald “R.J.” Rouse.
Rouse, a lineman for the Red Foxes football team, collapsed Friday during a football game and later died. His 19th birthday would have been this coming Monday.
“I tell you today that if I had a son, I would love for him to be like R.J., a nice respectable young man,” said the Rev. DeLen McRae of Mt. Tema Baptist Church in Hartsville. “He loved his family. He loved his school and he loved his church.”
Mostly, according to those who spoke Wednesday, Rouse loved life.
Jeff Calabrese, Hartsville’s coach, said his staff often laughed while watching game videotape because of what they called “Rouse Moments” from their 6-foot-3, 330-pound center. One occurred Friday against Crestwood when Hartsville neared the goal line.
“Usually, the running back jumps over the pile to score,” Calabrese said. “On this particular occasion, he jumped over the pile. ... half cartwheel, half belly-flop, half sideways land.”
Recently, Rouse approached Calabrese about putting together a highlight video of the center’s play, much like coaches do for running backs, quarterbacks, linebackers and defensive backs.
“Ronald, look, there’s not a highlight video for centers,” Calabrese recalled saying.
“I can find some,” Rouse responded, and returned with highlights of 60 plays, or double the number normally found for skill-position players.
By the time coaches, players and preachers had talked of Rouse on Wednesday, it was easy to see why the support for Rouse’s family, the Hartsville High football program and the community has stretched throughout the state, across the country and internationally.
USC mentioned Rouse before Saturday’s pregame invocation at Williams-Brice Stadium. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney talked about Rouse’s death following Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech.
Potted plants and flowers have arrived all week from high school football programs around the state. Crestwood High sent a banner to the school in memory of Rouse and signed by students. A former coach now in Germany sent along his condolences, and an official at St. Hubert Rebelles in Quebec, Canada, said the high school would observe a moment of silence before its Friday football game.
Rouse’s death is the third by a Hartsville High student this year. Senior Jymeke Sanders died in April in his sleep, and rising junior Bay Eaddy was killed in an auto crash in June. With each death, this community of nearly 8,000 seems to rally around one another. It is a community spirit that perhaps traces to its founding days when the city was named after Captain Thomas E. Hart because of his kind and generous heart.
“The community has really come together for this,” said Hope Payne, the 35-year-old manager of Ruth’s Drive-In, a fast-food city staple for more than 60 years located a few blocks from the high school.
Ruth’s employees wore “Red for Rouse” T-shirts on Monday, then again on Wednesday. A collection cup sat at the cash register asking for donations to assist the Rouse family’s funeral expenses just as they did at other businesses throughout the city. Wristbands and T-shirts also will be sold with proceeds going to the family.
The city, where flags have flown at half mast all week, still seemed in a state of shock over what happened. High school football remains the focal point for the city on Friday nights in the fall, and this season the Red Foxes had further captured everyone’s attention.
Hartsville counts state football titles in 1981, 1987 and 1988 and this team has been on a march to a fourth with seven wins to open the season and a top ranking in Class 3A. Crestwood came to town for Friday’s homecoming game and Hartsville bolted to a 27-7 lead late in the second quarter.
That is when Rouse stood up, signaled for a timeout and collapsed while walking to the sideline. Four physicians and two athletics trainers treated Rouse on the sideline and used a defibrillator on his heart. While Rouse was transported to Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center, the game continued and homecoming activities were conducted at halftime.
“He was trying to get the referees’ and coachs’ attention to tell them that he needed some time out, for he knew he needed to talk to Jesus,” wrote Rouse’s mother, Yvonne Rouse, in the funeral services program.
Upon learning of the gravity of Rouse’s condition, athletics officials and coaches decided to cancel the second half, and Crestwood later said it would accept the halftime score as the final.
Afterward, the entire Hartsville team and family members descended on the hospital, where they learned of Rouse’s death. Darlington County Coroner J. Todd Hardee said after an autopsy Saturday that Rouse died of natural causes as a result of a sudden irregular heartbeat brought on because he was born with an enlarged heart.
There was talk that Rouse’s No. 74 jersey would be retired, but school policy does not permit that. Still, Calabrese has said no player will ever again wear that jersey number.
Instead, Hartsville will remember Rouse for the night he played his final football game on homecoming, then participated — as one preacher said — in another kind of homecoming.