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Tom Smart, Deseret News
South Summit junior Porter Hancock has worked tirelessly throughout the football season to inch his way up the Wildcats' varsity depth chart at linebacker and running back. Last Friday the hard work finally paid off as he started the game at linebacker. Tragedy struck in the third quarter of his long-awaited start though as Hancock suffered a dislocated neck and was paralyzed from the chest down after tackling Emery's punter following a fumbled snap Monday, Oct. 10, 2011, in Kamas, Utah.
It was really just amazing that people care about hardship and you find out that there is a really strong sense of family, not just in your school or community but outside as well. —Ron Dolphin

MOAB — Jerry Parker understands just how conflicted Dennis Wells and Ron Dolphin feel standing on the sideline of a football field every day.

And while the mountain community of Kamas looks and feels a lot different than the red-rock desert of Moab, the communities are both small, tight-knit and committed to the high schools that belong to them. They share something else, something that only those who've experienced it will understand — tragedy has struck the football programs at both high schools.

Football to a small community is more than a game. But, then again, when a child dies, when a young man is paralyzed, the game is suddenly less magical, no longer important, maybe even irrelevant.

But that’s just the pain talking.

The truth is there is healing power in sports. In a small town, football can draw a community together in a way other activities just can’t. But at the same time, the importance of that game changes with the perspective of excruciating pain.

So when Parker read that Grand High sophomore Sam Woodruff had died unexpectedly, he knew the terrible journey that awaits Wells, Dolphin, their players and the community that loves them. He also knew that journey was made bearable by the acts of kindness that come at unexpected times and from unexpected places.

Two years ago, Parker, who is in his ninth season as the head coach of South Summit’s football team, was standing on the sideline when tragedy rocked his community. He wanted to reward a hard-working junior for his dedication and he let him start the game against Emery High.

Porter Hancock was tackling the Spartan punter when he dislocated his neck. It was a play Parker watched on film and replayed in his mind. It was nothing crazy, nothing reckless. It left the junior paralyzed from the chest down.

Parker helped strap his young player to the stretcher, then took him to a hospital. Instead of a post-game talk, the team prayed and then went home to their families.

Normal never came back that season as every time Parker saw Porter in a wheelchair, his heart broke. It was hard to strategize, to worry about wins when he was constantly reminded that there are more important things than football.

During the playoffs that year, South Summit played Grand. And during halftime, the Red Devils presented Parker a check for $1,800 for Hancock. Dolphin and Wells had read about Hancock’s long, difficult and very expensive recovery, and the folks in Grand County just wanted to help.

With that gesture they did more than pay a few bills. They sent love and empathy to a coach, a team and a community that was hurting.

So when Parker read about Woodruff’s tragically unexpected death on the first day of the team’s two-a-day practices, he knew what he had to do.

Every year the Wildcats have a turkey and pork dinner that ends with a cake auction spearheaded by the team’s seniors.

“We were just talking about it and how tragic it was,” said Parker. “With us going through what we did with Porter, that’s what hit us. We just felt like we knew what Grand was going to go through all year. That’s how I approached it.”

So the coach made a plea to the community. In addition to helping the young men in green this season, how about lending a hand to a family struggling just to raise enough money for burial costs.

“I had people coming up to me just handing me money,” said Parker. At the end of the night, the good people of Kamas raised $2,500 for the Woodruff family.

South Summit’s athletic director sent an email to Dolphin, who is not only an assistant football coach but the school’s athletic director.

“I was stunned,” he said. His heart was full, and he didn’t really have the words to describe how it felt to be on the receiving end of a gesture so thoughtful, so needed and so appreciated.

“It was a real empathetic gesture on their part,” said Dolphin. “It made me feel good that people care in this state. … It was really just amazing that people care about hardship and you find out that there is a really strong sense of family, not just in your school or community but outside as well.” When the email came, Dolphin didn’t think of the kindness Grand County had shown Kamas two years ago. When reminded of it, he said, “When you do good things for people, often it comes back to you when you least expect it. We didn’t expect anything like that from anyone in the state. It was a huge surprise.”

Parker said enduring life-altering tragedy as a team changes everyone. It puts everything in perspective — even the game that brings them together.

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“Sometimes we get so caught up in that game and we think it’s so important, and it’s just a game,” he said. “It’s something the community can do together. We get so wrapped up in state championships and winning games that when you have a tragic accident, you realize, holy heck, we need to be better to each other and to our families.”

The game isn’t the most important thing.

It’s all the little things like sacrifice, commitment and being our best (on and off the field) that make the games magic.

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Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com