Late Saturday morning, after the worst night of their lives, the football coach and team trainer met at Sacramento’s Kennedy High School to reflect on what they had and what they lost.
Their hearts were heavy, their eyes welled with tears. They stood in silence. They looked at the green turf on the Greenhaven neighborhood campus, squinting as the sun splashed down. Then something powerful happened.
Coach Brian Lewis and trainer Joel Cantu agreed the moment, frozen in time, was a message from their fallen student-athlete, who was as beloved as he was spirited and silly. At around 8 p.m. Friday, late in a game against Hiram Johnson High School, Lewis and Cantu worked frantically to comfort and revive Emmanuel “Manny” Antwi, a senior lineman, team comedian and team captain.
They at least wanted to assist the paramedics to save a young man’s life. Antwi collapsed in the fourth quarter of that season opener against visiting Johnson. He did not regain consciousness. He died at UC Davis Medical Center. The cause is still not clear. He was 18.
Somehow, the coach and trainer still feel him.
“Joel and I were standing there on the field,” Lewis said Monday evening from his nearby coaching office, “and the sun for a second became extra bright. I told Joel, ‘Doesn’t it feel like he’s here right now? Manny’s here!’ We felt his energy. We felt his bright spirit. We still feel it. I have this powerful sense that Manny is using me to let everyone know that everything will be OK. I feel it when I hug his mother.”
‘A PERFECT NIGHT’ INTERRUPTED
Antwi was Kennedy’s starting center, in the middle of the action, snapping the ball to the quarterback. He was a thick-bodied kid with legs the size of trees. He was 5-foot-11 and 310 pounds, but coaches and family said he was mobile, athletic and in good shape.
It was a cool night, senior night, which is normally reserved for the final home game. But games have been canceled and rescheduled amid the coronavirus pandemic and Lewis wanted a sure thing. He wanted this to be a special night as players had not competed in a prep game in 15 months.
Earlier Friday, Lewis was delighted to see a jubilant Antwi race up to him. Antwi secured his driver’s license that day. No more biking to school for practice.
“He was so excited that he woke me up at 5:30 in the morning to remind me of the license,” said Diana Antwi, his mother, with a laugh Tuesday.
Born in Ghana, Africa, Antwi first played football as a freshman at Kennedy, determined to lose weight, to be a teammate, to learn this cool game. He also wanted to impress his coaches, to inspire younger brother Jude, a Kennedy football teammate, and kid sister Megan. And of course he wanted to please his mother Diana, whom he doted on as the man of the house.
Diana has worked two jobs as a single mother. She moved her kids to California when they were young, “to find a better life, a better education and to see my kids thrive,” she said. With a sturdy roster of 29 varsity players, Lewis and Cantu made sure to send waves of players in against Johnson, generally after three plays, “to keep everyone fresh,” Lewis said.
Kennedy led 18-0 in the fourth quarter when Antwi came out of the game. He sought water, said Jude, a sophomore. Antwi attempted to remove his shoulder pads, and then slumped to the ground on the sideline. Coach Lewis and trainer Cantu held his hands and talked to him as medics tended to him, but got no response.
“He seemed normal, and he played hard, but there were no red flags, there was no hard hit or concussion — it just happened,” Lewis said. “All of a sudden, Manny is down. We closely monitor our guys. You’re trained to look for things that don’t seem normal. He was normal. No complaints of feeling bad, or tired or sick. He just wanted to play so bad.”
Said Cantu, “These kids are like my own. We keep a close eye on them.”
The game was stopped, then canceled. Players hugged each other, coaches, too, as medics performed CPR, including chest compressions, over several agonizing moments. Most everyone on the field held back tears or let them flow, Lewis said.
“As soon as (Johnson coach) Alex Gomes came over to check on me and Manny, he had tears, and we feared the worst,” Lewis said.
Said Jude, Manny’s younger brother, “I was scared and worried. I don’t think Manny knew how much I looked up to him, how much I loved him, and I wanted to be in that ambulance with him. I didn’t want to lose hope.”
What happened to the young man? The family said there will be an autopsy. Funeral services are pending.
“I’m thinking it was his heart,” Jude said. “He was gassed. He was tired because he was playing really hard. He always played hard.”
Said Diana Antwi, “We want to find out what happened. How does my son pass away? He was happy, he was doing fine, enjoying life.”
Diana was working and did not see the game. She learned of the terrible news from Jude, who used coach Lewis’ cellphone to reach out. Later that night, Lewis got the call he dreaded.
“To get that call, that he didn’t make it, you never overcome that,” Lewis said. Said Kennedy athletic director Dave Parsh, “Manny was a sweet-natured kid. It was Friday night lights, a perfect night, a good game, and then it became the absolute nightmare for any of us.”
FOOTBALL COMMUNITY FEELS KENNEDY’S PAIN
Lewis spent Monday afternoon with Cantu and later met with other members of the coaching staff in his campus office. He calls the room, “The Bone Yard” because it smells like a weight room, mainly because it used to be one.
Kennedy did not practice Monday. It will have a light workout the rest of the week, mainly to keep the players together as they cope with the unthinkable. Friday’s home game against Pleasant Grove has been canceled. The team will play out its season next month with games at Woodcreek and Highlands.
“We will compete in honor of Manny,” Lewis said.
School has not been in session on campus in just over a year due to the pandemic, and the weeds growing in the parking lot are testament to that pause. In his fourth year coaching the Cougars, Lewis takes his role at his alma mater deeply personal. There is no coaching clinic or seminar or paper work that prepares a coach for the loss of a player.
Lewis said he has been moved by the outpouring of support from area coaches, from Elk Grove to Folsom to Placer County and beyond. Some sent flowers. Kennedy parents have sent food and support to the Antwi family. A GoFundMe page to raise money for funeral costs had a target of $20,000. It raised more than double that amount through noon Tuesday.
Johnson athletic director Nathan Oltmanns decided to honor Manny with a sticker that shows Antwi’s jersey No. 77 and his initials. Gomes-Coelho planned to give them out to his players Tuesday. Other area schools have also requested stickers.
”We tried to shield our kids from what was happening with Manny on the sideline, because he’s still just a child,” Gomes-Coelho said. “He has parents. He has family and a family at Kennedy. I can only imagine the pain they’re going through. Our gesture with the decals is the least we can do.”
Gomes-Coelho on Monday handed out stickers to his Johnson players for the back of their helmets. The decals show Antwi’s jersey No. 77 and his initials. On Wednesday, each football program in the Sacramento City Unified School District will wear green — Kennedy’s school colors — in practice to honor Antwi and the program.
Next week, the McClatchy football team will take the Kennedy team out to dinner. The schools have been rivals since Kennedy opened in 1968.
“I’m blown away by all the love, the support, the words,” Lewis said Monday, wiping away a tear. “People care. I saw the faces and tears of our administration here, and our athletic director, and they’re broken. We lost a good kid. He shouldn’t be gone. You never want to lose kids, and losing the special ones makes it even harder. Someone once asked if Manny was my son. Yeah. He’s my Manny, our Manny.”
Lewis said of his team, “Don’t underestimate these kids. They’re strong and resilient. Young men grow up thinking they can’t share emotions and cry. They can.”
Xavier Calvin has cried. The Kennedy senior was Antwi’s best friend on the team.
“We all love Manny and we will miss him,” he said.
THE COMEDIC KID WITH THE CROOKED SMILE
When Antwi gazed at people with a crooked smile, it meant beware. He liked to roast Lewis with one-liners, often because he is a suffering Cowboys fan (Manny’s team was the 49ers). He would also take aim at how the coach talked and walked.
Antwi’s brother and mother described him as being nurturing and caring, a gentle giant.
“If I was cold, he’d bring me a blanket,” Diana said. “My son was such a sweet boy. When I got divorced, Manny took over as the man of the house. He did everything for me — chores, helping with rent, taking care of his brother and sister. He was like my right hand. ... Oh my God, I love him so.”
Antwi said she doesn’t worry about Jude as long as “he has that amazing coach Lewis and those players there with him.”
Jude said his lasting memory of Manny is not a young man in distress. It was what his brother told him during the game Friday, happy in his game element.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I love you!,’” Jude said. “I didn’t take a moment to say I love him back. I regret that.”
Jude paused and added, “Manny would want us to play on, and he’d want me to play, and we will.”
Lewis said his team will at some point release balloons from midfield to honor Antwi. The coach said he cherishes the time he spent Saturday with the Antwi family. There were tears but also a lot of laughs, because that’s what the big senior kid who wanted to study engineering was all about.
Antwi’s jersey No. 77 will be retired, the coach said, with one exception.
“His mom wanted to give me his game jersey the other day and I told her to keep it — ‘It belongs to you,’” Lewis said. “No one will ever wear 77 here again, unless Jude wants to, and then we’d all be honored.”