Warmth and soul had to come out of their coaches and counselors, because, for a group of Valencia High School football players kneeling on the football field while the sun slowly set behind them, they’ve been forced to realize the heart of their defense is now gone.
On Thursday, Valencia Vikings head coach Larry Muir, his coaching staff, wellness coordinators from two schools and blankets from Project Linus all attempted to provide these players with some comfort following the death of their teammate, Pedro Roman.
The 17-year-old Roman, who donned the No. 21 on his jersey — like many great defensive players before him — was on the junior varsity Vikings team when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2019.
After a near year-and-a-half battle with the disease, Roman died after a recent relapse of his cancer, his family announced on Monday.
Roman was described by his teammates, many of whom stood to hug one another after they heard from alumnus Jerry Malkowski and other comforters following their latest athletic conditioning, as a “maniac” on the football field.
“He played middle backer, so he was the one making calls,” said Giorgio Spiropoulos, a teammate of Roman’s since freshman year. “Even beyond the field, he was a maniac in the weight room, he would never go easy on the weights and he would push everyone to do as much as they could.”
A tribute video made in dedication to Roman shows highlights from his play on the field, one of which shows the “maniac” linebacker dropping into coverage before recognizing a draw play, charging forward and sticking the opposing team’s tailback at the line of scrimmage. It was something his teammates say was not out of the ordinary for him.
“The guy was a maniac, and he was the heart of our defense,” Spiropoulos added.
In addition to “maniac,” a term used endearingly, teammates called him “loyal,” “a brother” and “a fighter.”
For those gathered on the field, Roman’s passing seemed to leave them feeling numb, said Jacqueline Pershing, wellness coordinator for Valencia HIgh School, and the conversation on the field on Thursday, and the presentation of the comforting blankets, was meant to normalize the grief former teammates are feeling.
“I’ve heard a lot of students just ask, ‘I feel really numb right now? Is that normal?’” Pershing said following the on-field meeting just hours before a community vigil would be held in Roman’s remembrance. “So, I think normalizing it really lets them know it’s OK.”
Muir said that he talked to his players over the past week about understanding that every kid handles things differently and on different levels, and if the guy next to them is crying and they’re not, that does not mean they’re feeling any less grief.
“We want to make sure that they understand people care about them, to reach out to the counselors on campus or whoever they need to.”
After the meeting, the student-athletes were then told they could take a blanket made by Project Linus at Academy of the Canyons, a student-run project that provides handmade blankets to comfort those in need or who have experienced trauma.