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2,000 Pay Their Respects to Lucas

April 19, 2005|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

MACON, Ga. — Two football teams filed into the Civic Auditorium here Monday, with noticeable differences and one distinct similarity -- Al Lucas.

The Avengers, wearing suits and ties, arrived in an air-conditioned bus with reclining bucket seats. The Northeast High football team, clad in game jerseys, rolled up in a super-sized school bus, one of those big yellow beasts, outfitted with vinyl bench seating.

As the teams passed inside, Avenger lineman Sean McNamara reached out and patted Northeast lineman Daniel Ellington on the back. At that moment, the paths the teams have been on for the last week merged, their feelings meshed.

Both were there to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Lucas, an Avenger lineman and Northeast assistant coach, who died of a presumed spinal cord injury April 10 during an Arena Football League game in Staples Center.

The Avengers and the Northeast team were honorary pallbearers at Lucas' funeral.

"He was more than a coach to us," Ellington said. "He was a mentor. He showed us how we should act."

The Avengers had been saying much the same thing. They came here looking for closure, joining about 2,000 others who attended Lucas' funeral in the city where he grew up, started playing football and lived during the off-season.

The 80-year-old Civic Auditorium, a granite building in the center of town, was packed with mourners who listened to a powerful lineup of speakers, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- who said Lucas had had a "sense of purpose in his life" -- to Georgia Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, with a large contingent of state legislators in attendance.

The turnout gave the Avengers and their staff a sense of how Macon valued Lucas and his family. His father, David Lucas, is a state representative. Al Lucas, the favorite son, often returned to Northeast High, his alma mater, to talk with students. He joined the football coaching staff last fall.

"He loved Northeast High School," Athletic Director Alvin Copeland said. "That was his motivation for being here. He loved his school."

The Avengers listened to the speakers, all of whom recounted Lucas' never-bat-an-eye faith and unyielding passion for football.

"For the Avengers to travel all this way to be with us and help us means a lot," Tray Stephens, a high school friend of Lucas, said to the audience. "It shows how they care about Al and his family."

The Avengers flew in from Nashville on Monday morning after an emotional game Sunday. Yet, they had more on their minds than their loss to the Kats.

"This was the hardest week I have had as a coach," Ed Hodgkiss said. "To lose a friend and a player, you realize that football is our job, it's what we do, but there are things that are more important."

Both teams also attended the burial.

"The thing I know when I look at his locker is, he is still here," McNamara said. "He is still part of this team."

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