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Football is part of healing process

November 13, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Just before the start of an afternoon football workout at Los Angeles Cathedral High, Kyle Merrill removed his shirt, revealing a tattoo engraved across his upper back: "Sean RIP Matt."

The story behind the tattoo is heartbreaking.

On the night of Merrill's 15th birthday, Dec. 19, 2006, he was riding in the back seat of a Nissan Maxima. Along with his brother, Matthew, and three friends, he was headed home from his birthday celebration. Around 1 a.m., the driver, Matthew Hernandez, 18, lost control of the car on Los Feliz Boulevard near Griffith Park. He was speeding and had consumed alcohol, according to police. The car veered off the road, hit a tree and burst into flames.

Hernandez and Matthew Merrill, 18, were killed. Passenger Sean Balaney, 18, also died. Two in the back seat, Kyle and 14-year-old Stephen Castillo, survived.

Four of the five victims were students or ex-students from Cathedral, an all-boys parochial school located near Dodger Stadium.

"The front seats were bleary with a lot of smoke," Merrill said. "I remember telling my friend -- I nudged him with my elbow -- get up, we need to get out of here. I heard my sister screaming, 'Get out of the car!' "

Merrill's sister, Nikki, had been following in another car.

Brother and sister watched helplessly as nothing could be done to save Matthew.

"While I was in shock, it was confusing to me why they couldn't get him out," Merrill said. "I didn't know if he was alive or dead. I just wanted him out of the car."

It has been three years since that tragic night, and Merrill has become a standout receiver and defensive back for Cathedral's 9-0 football team, which plays Gardena Serra (9-0) tonight for the Del Rey League championship. He has caught eight touchdown passes, is averaging 18 yards a reception and has made two interceptions. He also has a 3.5 grade-point average and is a team leader.

"It will never go away, but kids bounce back," his mother, Lynette, said.

But how did Merrill regain his faith? How did he overcome his grief? What made him want to go back to Cathedral, where his brother played football and baseball? Who helped him get through the tough times?

Each question he answered with the honesty and maturity of a teenager far beyond his years.

"I lost a lot of faith in God," he said. "I kind of asked, 'Why?' I don't know why it happened to me, especially on my birthday. I didn't know if I wanted to come back to Cathedral, let alone school."

Early on, he felt confused and depressed, but he said he received inspiration and support from his mother, father and sister. A school counselor became his confidant, allowing him to open up, cry and release his feelings.

Every Sunday, he'd go to the cemetery to be with his brother.

"It's a calm place, it's a nice place. You have a breeze. You have a beautiful view," he said.

Slowly, he began to heal. He found comfort in his schoolwork, in sports and in prayers. He started thinking about why he lived and others died.

"I think God took him away to kind of test me," he said.

Before games, he goes to the school chapel and prays.

"I pray they are here watching over me," he said. "I kind of think they're next to the goal posts. I think how he would play, how he would get ready, how he would focus."

Football has been invaluable in his healing process.

"The physical work gets my mind off the emotions," he said. "During that time, I had a lot of problems sleeping. Football practice is good because it gets you tired."

Last year, Merrill was tested emotionally again. Just before he was scheduled to get on the school bus for an important league game against North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, he received word that Nikki was in labor.

He told his coach, Kevin Pearson, he couldn't go to the game.

"Coach, you always tell me family comes first," he said.

He hoped his new nephew might arrive before the game was over, but he called Pearson and was sobbing on the phone.

"Tell the guys I'm sorry," he said.

The tears are gone, replaced by a determined, resilient, tough competitor who has a plan for the future.

"I'm grateful," he said. "Not for my brother dying, but for my life and the inspiration I have from my family. I want to be an engineer. I want to help people, and if that doesn't work out, I want to be a firefighter because that night I didn't get a chance to help my brother and maybe in the future I can help someone in a similar situation."

Castillo, the other survivor of the accident, is a manager for the football team.

The detective from the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Traffic Bureau who investigated the accident, Michael Kaden, said, "They happened to be very lucky to get out of the car."

The tattoo was added soon after the accident. Last year, another tribute to his brother was engraved across his upper chest.

"I'm just trying to play football in his name and my dad's name and my family," he said. "I'm trying to make them proud."

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latsondheimer

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