It’s been almost three months since the death of River Bluff defensive lineman Lewis Simpkins, but his teammates still have the defensive lineman’s memory on their minds.
The Gators play their final game of the season Friday at White Knoll.
Simpkins died Aug. 11 less than a week before his 15th birthday. Lexington County coroner ruled that Simpkins died of a pre-existing heart condition exacerbated by the heat that afternoon.
"It’s something you think about everyday when you wake up and before you go to sleep," River Bluff kicker Dawson Henis said.
Henis and teammates spent the days after Simpkins’ death attending his memorial service and funeral. The Shrine Bowl kicker said the days and weeks after Simpkins’ death were "numb" and practices and games lacked the normal energy and intensity. He said it took about a month before things returned to some sort of a normal routine.
After an emotional, come-from behind win its opener against Chapin, River Bluff has lost eight straight games headed into Friday night’s season finale against White Knoll. The Gators will miss the postseason for the second straight year.
But River Bluff coach David Bennett is finding the positives in what some might see as a discouraging season.
"More lessons were learned this year than any year we had ever had," River Bluff coach David Bennett said. "Lewis Simpkins is one of the most phenomenal young men we have ever been around. You look at it as God had us here for a reason and cherish the time we spent with him and this team. You can sit there and say that y’all didn’t win many games, but the spirit of these kids have been unbelievable. They haven’t gotten down."
The Gators had the same enthusiasm and energy during Wednesday’s final full practice of the season as they had back at the beginning of preseason practice.
For Bennett, it’s not the way he wanted to close out his coaching career. In July, he became the Director of Athletics for Lexington One, but it was decided he should coach one more season.
Still, Bennett, who remains in contact with the Simpkins family every week, calls this season his most rewarding in more than two decades of being a coach on the high school and college level. He has been impressed with the way his players have dealt with Simpkins’ death and other setbacks along the way. River Bluff lost the rest of its starting defensive line because of injuries and was without starting quarterback Stephen Kight for half of the season. Kight broke his collarbone in the opener against Chapin.
Three of their losses were by four points and River Bluff was tied with Lexington at halftime before losing 20-7.
"It’s way bigger and deeper than a record of our high school football team,” Bennett said. “It is about relationships and lessons that are forever. They are way more important than did you win the game or lose the game."
It’s those relationships that Kight will take with him. The senior quarterback said this has been the closest team he has been a part of. He said the team came together after Simpkins’ death. Henis said players stood by each other no matter what grade.
"The coaches have put an emphasis on life lessons and learn life lessons through the game," Kight said. "Relationships have grown between me and my teammates. We know we can rely on each other down the road past high school and be there for each other."
There is one more chance to get a victory before that happens.
"This has been a rough season. If we can go out with one big win for coach Bennett and Lewis, it would be the best thing ever," Henis said.