The Central Bears got back to business on Wednesday. But it couldn’t possibly be business as usual. Their season, their lives have been irrevocably changed following a motorcycle accident Tuesday morning that left starting quarterback Sebastian Rivera, 16, in critical condition.
Rivera, a junior, collided with the back of a vehicle that had stopped in front of him traveling northbound on Mariner Blvd. approaching Delbarton St. in the outside lane. Rivera was struck by another vehicle after getting thrown from his bike into the inside lane. He was airlifted to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. After spending most of the previous day at the hospital, Central head coach Chris Sands was forced to turn his attention back to football on Wednesday morning. The Bears are scheduled to play at Weeki Wachee on Friday, a Class 5A, District 7 game that must be played.
Though the FHSAA did give permission to postpone the game, and Weeki Wachee head coach Mark Lee visited the hospital on Tuesday and informed Central coaches that his school had no issues with a postponement, the two teams opted to continue as originally planned. It was a decision, Sands said, that came with the blessing of Rivera’s family.
“Obviously we’re not doing too good, but we’re leaning on each other and that’s the only thing we could do,” Sands said. “We’re not just playing the game for Sebastian and us, but we’re playing it for everyone. Everyone is affected by this tragedy and whatever happens to him… For us it’s a chance to take football and turn it into something that takes everyone’s minds off the situation.”
Sands, in just his second year as a head coach, admitted to uncertainty over how to move forward. “It’s difficult because there’s no right way to do it,” Sands said. “We said, ‘What would Sebastian do? What would he want us to do in this situation and how would he want us to respond?’ Sebastian is an unbelievably hard worker and that’s what we’ve decided to do as a team. The kids responded really well today and I’m really proud of them.” Somehow, the Bears must try to focus on the field. At 2-2, the team had started to appear competitive after years of losing, and Rivera was a big part of it.
After playing for Central as a freshman, he was on the Springstead roster last season before moving back into Central’s zone. Through the first four games this season he was 24-of-58 passing for 452 yards, with six touchdowns against one interception. “Sebastian is our quarterback and always will be,” Sands said. “We have a couple of kids getting reps there. Ryan McCane played there in the spring. He’s an unbelievable leader. He loves Sebastian so much, too, and he really wants to play hard. He’s going to be there to start and I expect him to do great things.” On his Twitter account Tuesday, McCane dedicated Friday’s game to Rivera.
Adding to the resolve of the Bears, Rivera’s brother, middle linebacker Josh Rivera, has indicated he would like to play. “Josh, he’s a very mature kid and loves his brother so much. That’s his best friend,” Sands said. “He’s telling us he wants to play for him. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. He loves his brother so much, I wouldn’t want to put it past him to be on the field Friday night.” Another relative of Rivera’s is expected to see action. Weeki Wachee junior linebacker/running back Jakob Gonzalez, a cousin, is set to play.
Rivera’s cousin, Weeki Wachee junior varsity player Sebastian Class, participated in the Hornets’ JV game Wednesday night wearing the number three in honor of Sebastian Rivera.
“It hit home for us, too, because we have a couple of his relatives on our football team,” Weeki Wachee head coach Mark Lee said. “You hate to see anyone at that age have to go through that. At 16, you’re supposed to have the rest of your life ahead of you. “Our hearts go out to Sebastian and his family and the school.”
Friday was supposed to be a night of fun and excitement at the Hornets’ Nest. Due to the close proximity of the two schools, they’ve worked hard to build up a rivalry, dubbing it the “Battle of Hexam” after the road that divides the two school zones and creating a traveling trophy held by the most recent winner. It’s also Weeki Wachee’s homecoming, although Lee indicated the typical festivities will likely be subdued out of respect. Lee added that his school has made up helmet decals for both teams that will pay tribute to Rivera, and there figures to be other gestures at the start of the night.
“It’s going to be an emotional game, I’m sure. We’re going to go out and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Lee said. “Once the kickoff goes, it’s game time. Central wants to beat us and we want to beat them. A tragic accident happened and you hate that. Football when compared to life obviously is very secondary… Whoever wins the game on Friday, I think they’d trade that in for Sebastian to be all right. I don’t think anybody would think differently. I think anyone on Weeki Wachee or Central would go for that.”
As for the Bears, Sands said to some just taking the field would be a victory. But that’s not how the team wants to approach it. “Obviously it’s going to be emotional. There’s a lot of things going through the kids’ heads,” Sands said. “But we’re playing for him and we know how he would do it, and we know he’d do all he could to win the football game. Sebastian is such a great kid. What we’ve talked about the last few days is his smile. His smile lit up a room. He was always smiling, always cracking jokes. He’s such a happy kid and that’s what hurts the most, not seeing that smile. On Friday, we’re going to try to make him smile.”