The Intersection of Family and Football In the Wake of Tragedy

They can spend endless hours in the gym. They can study the playbook. They can prepare for a big game, but what athletes can’t do is prepare for a tragedy. No one can.

Newberry High School tight end Perry Sylvester lost his mom, and Newberry Head Football Coach Ed Johnson lost his cousin in a drive-by shooting this past summer. Natisha Covert, 36, died in Waldo on June 21.

Here we are – five months later.

Sylvester just finished playing his senior season of football, and Johnson led a high school football program to the playoffs. They could not have done it without each other.

The intersection of family and football has never meant more.

Summer Tragedy

Sylvester stands with mother Natisha Covert following a 2019 Newberry football game.

Sylvester, 17, was worried about what time he was going to run routes the next day when his brother, Pernell, 20, walked into his room and told him they had just lost their mom.

Now, he had bigger concerns.

Sylvester and his brother were wondering how they were going to break the news to their six younger siblings, how they were going to support their six younger siblings and how they were going to survive without the only parent they ever knew – their mother.

How Football and Family Fostered a Bond Like No Other

Thankfully for Sylvester, he had, and still has, a close-knit family within walking distance. He also has a family member he gets to take to football practice with him every day – Coach Johnson.

After the loss of Covert, the Newberry community was hurting. Johnson contemplated whether he would come back to coach at the high school.

Ultimately, Johnson knew that there was only one option. He had to come back.

“I need to be here for Perrion, Perris, Perry and kids in general,” Johnson said. “They need me, and I need them just as much. Newberry is my home.”

Sylvester’s two younger brothers also play for Newberry. Perrion is a junior wide receiver, and Perris is a freshman offensive tackle.

Football After Tragedy

The game of football gave both Johnson and Sylvester hope. It was an outlet for them to grieve.

Johnson and Sylvester picked one another up and motivated each other. They both knew that they had to get back out there on the football field and make Sylvester’s mom proud.

Sylvester said, even before August rolled around, his teammates and coaches rallied around him with support.

“If I wasn’t playing football I’d probably be somewhere on the streets in trouble,” Sylvester said.

He said that losing his mom forced him to mature and man up. With Johnson by his side and the motivation within, Sylvester is now a straight-A student with his eyes on the future.

A Family Tragedy

Now that Sylvester’s mom is not around, he said that it is his job to make sure his little sisters are taken care of. It is his job to be a role model for his siblings.

When those Friday night lights come on, there is no doubt that Sylvester wishes his mom was in the stands. However, Sylvester said he does not let the absence of his mom get him down. He uses it as motivation.

“We are all playing for one purpose – to make her proud,” he said.

Newberry High School football huddles around one another for a pregame prayer.

Before each game, during Coach Johnson’s pregame speech, he huddles the team up and reminds everyone that this game is for Sylvester’s mom.

Newberry football went 8-2 this season. Ultimately, they fell to the Wildwood Wildcats in the region semi-finals.

What’s Next for Sylvester

His senior season might be over, but Sylvester has his eyes on something bigger. His goal is to get an education and play collegiate football.

It is important to Sylvester to stay close to home, to be near his family. He is hopeful that a college nearby will come through with an offer.

Currently, the 6’4” 235-pound tight end has offers from three small colleges, none of which are close to Newberry.

Sylvester and Johnson are reminders to football fans everywhere that there is more to the players than just taking snaps and catching passes. They are humans, too.

There is more to Newberry football than what meets the eye. There is more to Perry Sylvester than that number thirteen he reps each week on a blue and yellow jersey.

Please see previous post for my interview with Sylvester and Johnson earlier this month.

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