There’s no question that the James Buchanan football team has had its fair share of hardships.
But this season, the Rockets faced an even bigger hardship than a loss when first-year teammate Oscar Erkes collapsed after a tough loss to Mifflin County.
Erkes, an exchange student from Ekerö, Sweden, joined the football team in August just hours after arriving to the U.S., and immediately showed promise. He came to the team as a 6-foot-2, 217-pound tight end/linebacker, and according to James Buchanan coach Andy Stoner, had a heckuva foot.
“He could kick the crap out of the ball,” Stoner said, recounting a nearly 60-yard punt against Mifflin County on Sept. 23.
But Erkes got hit - hard - shortly thereafter. And like any player, new to the game or not, he got up and trotted back to the sideline, ready for the next play.
But little did the team - or anyone else - know that Erkes had a pre-existing condition which triggered a serious reaction after a hard blow to his abdomen. Erkes unknowingly played the remainder of the game, but collapsed afterward and was immediately taken to the hospital for tests. After his condition was evaluated, he was flown to Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for further treatment.
“He’s a special kid,” Stoner said. “He came all the way from Sweden to try a sport that he had never played before. He has the size, and he was learning the technique. He was trying to gut through what he thought was just a blow to the midsection and came to find out it was something a lot more serious than that.”
The Monday after Erkes was transported to Hershey, Stoner and the James Buchanan coaching staff rounded up the team for a 1 ½ hour drive to visit Erkes in the hospital.
“Those players are his brothers and the coaches are his extended fathers,” Stoner said. “He got really close to our guys, and I knew right away we had to go see him. We hung out with him in the cafeteria, talking to him and encouraging him in his recovery."
Senior back Evan Stoner said, "One of the best things about going up to see him in Hershey was as soon as we walked into the cafeteria you just saw this smile on his face. It was just wonderful to be there for him as a team."
Along with the team’s ongoing support, each member of the football team will don a No. 40 on their helmets for the remainder of the season to honor Erkes, who wore the number in his short football career.
"He was really committed to coming out and really doing something for this football team," senior wide receiver Clayton Bendell said, "and we really want to honor that dedication and show that respect for all he has done for this team."
Erkes said he knew the team was cooking something up while he was in the hospital, but was still surprised when he saw a picture of his teammates wearing his number.
"I showed him a picture of a couple players standing in a row, and he was looking at it and said, 'Why is Scott wearing my helmet? Wait, everyone is wearing my number,'" said Oscar's host parent Trina Embly. "You could tell it really meant a lot to him to have the kids showing their support. His reaction was priceless."
"I never expected anything like this," Erkes said. "I've played sports in Sweden, but this team has become my family, and the things they did - I'm happy to be a part of this team."
Erkes’ condition will prevent him from playing contact sports for the rest of his life, but he will still have the option to wear his jersey and support the team throughout the rest of the season, and plans to continue his senior year at James Buchanan. Although he is still recovering, Embly took Erkes to watch the team practice last Thursday before the Rockets' game against Northern York.
"I'm going to do everything with the team (when I get back to school)," Erkes said. "I'm not able to play anymore but I'm going to be a part of the team as long as I can."
"It just shows how football is a family game to us," said junior wide receiver Clay Sanders. "We only had him for about six weeks before he got injured, but we know he would do the same thing for us."
The Embly family spoke with Erkes during the weeks leading up to his arrival to Mercersburg, and discovered that he wanted to try American football. And with Derek Embly, a 2014 grad, working on the football coaching staff, it was a match made in heaven - and got even sweeter when they found out Erkes' size.
Although his tenure with American football was short, he said it was an experience unlike any other.
"I've played a lot of sports during my years, but American football, that's something else," Erkes said. "I only played four games but this beats every sport I've ever played. It's not just the sport, it's everything around it. Being a family and everything you do off the field, but kicking and tackling is great, too."
Erkes forced a fumble and assisted on a tackle against Mifflin County and had three tackles against Fairfield.
Earlier this season, the football team helped out another fellow teammate who’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in the offseason, and the athletic department continues to honor Violet Clark and other hometown heroes.
“These kids have learned so many life lessons off this football field by doing what we do in the offseason, and going up and supporting that young man is hopefully something that they remember,” Andy Stoner said. “When we compete on Friday night, we want that to be something they remember aside from the score.”