It does not matter whether the Hartsville Red Foxes complete this season undefeated on the football field.This season’s superlatives don’t matter.
It does not matter that the Red Foxes could return to Hartsville with the program’s first state title since 1988.
Since October 5, when senior nose guard Ronald Rouse collapsed during the Red Foxes’ homecoming game and later died, the 2012 season has not been about football.
“People talk about our record and all that stuff, but since that time, I haven’t thought much about what our record is, and I don’t think our players have thought much about what our record is,” coach Jeff Calabrese said. “The biggest thing is we show up everyday and we’re thankful to have football.
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“Football has not been the most important thing on our brain. Just being together and being a family has been. And that’s why we’re here.”
Rouse, a 6-foot-3, 335-pound lineman 10 days shy of his 19th birthday, 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.
The game was called when the Red Foxes got the news. Though the scoreboard reflected a win, 24-7, Hartsville that night endured a deep and abiding loss.
“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through in my life. I couldn’t fathom what was going on, I think,” Calabrese said. “I think we all thought he was going to get in the hospital, get in the ambulance and be fine.”
The coroner said Rouse died of natural causes as a result of a sudden irregular heartbeat brought on because he was born with an enlarged heart.
It is not Rouse’s 23 tackles and two recorded sacks the Red Foxes will miss. It’s the buoyant joviality and infectious confidence he brought to the lockerroom and the field.
“Ronald was always just a goofball,” senior running back Tre Rogers said.
“He always managed to keep your spirit up and keep you confident that no matter what you’re going against, you could come out on top if you play hard, play all out,” Rogers said.
“For us, it’s made us realize how important life is and how much the game can impact you as a person and a player. We’re more of brothers than we were before.”
Calabrese said an already close-knit team has drawn closer after Rouse’s death.
“These kids were tight before this happened,” Calabrese said. “They have been able to express that they care about each other in a little different way. It’s just helped them to appreciate one another and their differences.”
In the eight weeks since Rouse’s final game, the Red Foxes have kept Rouse’s spirit alive in their hearts.
So for Hartsville, Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game against Union County is not about showing that they are the state’s best football squad.
“We’re not the best football team in the state,” Calabrese said. “We’re just a big old family doing the best we can each and every day.”