The sun had just begun to rise over Union City’s Roosevelt Stadium complex last Monday morning around 6 a.m. when the Soaring Eagles football team was set to hold their first official day of football camp.
But before the Soaring Eagles took the field on the roof of the high school, head coach Wilber Valdez called the team together for an impromptu team meeting.
There was a dark cloud hovering over the Soaring Eagles, because one of their own was suddenly gone.
Josue Romero, who had just recently graduated from Union City High School, was tragically killed in a car accident on Route 440 in Jersey City early Sunday morning.
The car that he was a passenger in sped out of control, struck a tree and split into pieces, throwing Romero and the 17-year-old driver from the vehicle. Witnesses said that the car might have been drag racing with another.
The driver, Joshua Sanchez, survived the horrific crash. Romero did not. He had just turned 18 years old two days prior to the crash.
Romero was a member of the 2013 Union City High School football team, a reserve offensive guard, a respected teammate. Now, just like that, he was gone.
“Some of our players just saw him at McDonald’s after they were at a party in Union City,” Valdez said.
Valdez went Sunday night to attend a candlelight vigil at the crash site.
“I went there and found pieces of the car, like five pieces,” Valdez said. “And I took the pieces to the kids so they could see. I showed them the pieces of the car. They passed it around.”
Needless to say, it was an emotional moment for Valdez and his football team.
“They were still in the state of shock,” Valdez said. “They were in disbelief. A lot of the kids were very close to him. It definitely hit close to home. We were all heartbroken. It definitely makes you appreciate life.”
Valdez said that Romero was “a wonderful young man.”
“Josue was funny,” Valdez said. “He was very respectful. You know how demanding I am with everyone. Well, Josue was able to take it all. He was a serviceable backup for us. He hustled all the time. He was tough. He was so polite and so helpful. He was a team guy first. He was always asking questions. He had an infectious smile. He was always smiling. He was just a nice, happy kid. It’s a shame how it all ended for him.”
Offensive line coach Chris Johnsen was devastated by the news.
“I just saw him a week ago,” Johnsen said. “He was always good with a joke. He always made these little smart comments that he was known for. He was such a good kid.”
Johnsen said that he had a relationship with Romero since Romero was in middle school.
“He was a kid who came up from nothing and wanted to play football,” Johnsen said. “He was willing to do anything for the team. He was a guard, but if we needed a fullback for practice, he played fullback. Whatever he could do to help us, that’s what he did.”
Senior offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez, who has already given a verbal commitment to Penn State, had a good relationship with Romero.
“He was just a great kid,” Gonzalez said. “He was a funny guy who could appreciate a joke. We were very close, very good friends. We would talk a lot. He would help me and I would help him. He was one of our brothers.”
Valdez said that Romero was set to enroll in mechanics school at Teterboro Airport, wanting to learn how to service airplanes.
“This is an eye-opener for everyone,” Valdez said. “Not just the kids, but with the adults as well. We all take a lot for granted. Here’s an 18-year-old kid who has lost his life. There’s a message that has to hit home. It can all end just like that. I don’t know if it’s a football thing. We all can’t think we’re invincible, because we’re not. This is proof.”
Valdez said that he had to endure similar losses when he was a football player at the University of Miami. Al Blades, whose older brothers played in the National Football League, was brought to Miami in the same recruiting class, was killed in a crash while Valdez was there. Another, Chris Campbell, fell asleep at the wheel and was also killed.
“These were two of my teammates,” Valdez said. “I know what this is like.”
But the loss of Romero was closer to home.
“I start to think that I feel so responsible, like there was something I could have done, so I could teach Josue how to live life,” Valdez said.
“It makes you think about everything,” Johnsen said. “It’s hard to explain the feeling. This hit some of our kids really hard. David Allen is now at Delaware State. The two of them were always together. David is heartbroken over this. He just left for school. You never think it’s going to happen to one of your kids. I was watching the news and saw the crash and you never think it’s one of yours.”
So the news hit home on the first day of practice, as the Soaring Eagles prepare for what should be a special 2014 season, they had to deal with a tragedy to one of their very own.
“Josue wouldn’t want us to sit around and mope,” Valdez said. “We had a great first day. We thought about him for the rest of the day, but we went to work.”
The Soaring Eagles will find some sort of a fitting way to honor their fallen brother before the season kicks off. They will probably wear his No. 57 on their helmets or on their sleeves.
“We already wanted to get a ring this year [meaning a state championship], but now, we want to get the ring for him,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t need any motivation, but this gives us the extra motivation to keep working harder. You just never know when it can all end.”
Gonzalez knows that feeling, because he buried his father last fall after his dad suffered a fatal heart attack.
“You just try to be perfect every day,” Gonzalez said. “This is a huge loss. He was one of us.”
“Josue wanted to see us succeed,” Valdez said. “He wanted to see Union City win. We will definitely do something in tribute of Josue. As far as motivation, well, it just adds to the motivation we already had. No matter what, no matter how bad things are, we’re still here.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.