‘Ball for Nick.’ Roxborough team holds first practice since shooting

A man with a bear and a gray hooded sweatshirt stands in front of a chain link fence and a set of bleachers, with “Roxborough” on a blue wall behind the bleachers.
Mark Skinner, the assistant coach of Roxborough High School’s varsity football team, after practice Monday. Football players at the school are still processing the death of Nicolas Elizalde, 14, in a Sept. 27 shooting that left four other teenagers wounded. Elizalde played on the school’s junior varsity football team. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

For the first time since their teammate was killed in a shooting near their school last week, members of the Roxborough High School varsity and junior varsity football teams returned to the practice field Monday, and the players and coaches dedicated their season to him. 

In cold, rainy weather, Roxborough coaches and students at Monday’s practice adopted “Ball for Nick” as their slogan. Nicolas Elizalde was a freshman at Walter B. Saul High School, which doesn’t have a football team, so Elizalde was allowed to play on Roxborough’s JV team.

Elizalde was one of five district students shot Sept. 27 on Pechin Street, a short walk from the school and not long after a football scrimmage that involved students from Boys Latin Charter School and Northeast High School as well as Roxborough. 

On Tuesday, Philadelphia police identified Dayron Burney-Thorn, as a person of interest in connection to the shooting. There’s a $45,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or conviction, police told Chalkbeat.

Between snaps, members of the varsity and junior varsity teams discussed how they are processing the trauma of what they witnessed last week while still handling classwork and practice. Some parents were unhappy that Roxborough did not cancel classes the day after the shooting.

Students said they were buoyed by returning to football and energized to play. But they also frankly discussed their disappointment about the amount of time it took the police to respond to the shooting, as well as how — after Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Nick Sirianni showed his support for the school by wearing a Roxborough shirt during a press conference — the school has attracted such public support only after a violent, high-profile tragedy. 

In cold, rainy weather, members of Roxborough High School’s varsity and junior varsity football teams practice at Roxborough Stadium in Philadelphia on Monday. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

Kazir Dyson, the captain of Roxborough’s JV team, said “returning to practice has given me a little bit more energy. My biggest thing is to make sure we win in his name.” But Dyson also criticized the lack of a nearby trauma hospital, the absence of security around last week’s scrimmage, and much of the reaction to the shooting and Elizalde’s death. 

“Everybody wants to show love once someone passes away,” Dyson said. “My thing is to be there before the tragedy happens. What if this never happened? We would have never gotten this public attention.”

You never know when it’s going to be your time,” JV team member and Roxborough freshman Kaseem Osbourne added. “You want to build your profile now, because in Philly we can lose our life at any given moment.”

Gun violence in Philadelphia has spiked since the start of the pandemic, and has had a particularly traumatic effect on the city’s students

Roxborough briefly considered canceling the football season, said JV head coach Tyson Harrington, who graduated from the high school in 2020 and starred as a tight end for the school’s team. But instead, he said, he and others have done what they can to ensure safety. 

A police car was parked near the practice Monday, after some parents — like the players — criticized the lack of a security presence around the Sept. 27 scrimmage. 

“All we can do right now is ensure safety, like make sure all our players are good and make sure the parents know they will be good from here on out,” Harrington said. 

Harrington said after that scrimmage, the players were in “good spirits.” But then he heard the news about what happened shortly afterwards. “It was really tragic, sad,” he said. “We got players and people that didn’t deserve it.”

A makeshift memorial for Nicolas Elizalde, filled with flowers, candles, and pictures, sits on Pechin Street across from Roxborough Stadium. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

The team practices every day after school for almost two hours inside Roxborough Stadium, across from Gorgas Park. On Monday, across the street from the stadium, there was a makeshift memorial with flowers, candles, pictures, and a jersey on Pechin Street, where Elizalde was shot.

“We just want to finish the season out. What happened was crazy. And it still hasn’t quite sunk in what happened,” said Lovett Davenport, an 11th grade student and a starting cornerback on Roxborough’s varsity team. “Now we’re out here doing it for him.” 

Mark Skinner, assistant football coach for Roxborough’s varsity team, said a large part of his job in the current situation is to mentor his players.

“If you talk to the right child, you don’t even know how that ripple effect can save their life behind it,” Skinner said. “It’s a little bit of everything. It’s no one person’s fault or one thing to fix. We all have to do the collective thing to keep improving.”

Though a lot of students have quit the football team since last week, according to the players, the remaining players are committed to the season.

“I had the option to quit, but I said no. I had the option to transfer schools, but I said no. I’m going to ball for Nick and I’m going to do good for him,” Osbourne said. “I’m going to make sure he’s proud.”  

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified Mark Skinner’s coaching position with the Roxborough High School football team. He is the varsity team’s assistant coach.

Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org.

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