The football team bus crashed and four people died. More than 40 more were hurt.
A football season died, too. Dreams died.
Head coach Bakari Rawlinson of Rock Hill’s Ramah Juco Academy football team that was on that bus Sept. 17. 2016, the man pushing the dream that turned into a nightmare, survived.
“I felt my life leave my body,” Rawlinson recalled of the crash that tore the side of the bus. “I was lost. I wanted to give up.”
The crash was near Rockingham, N.C. The team made up of college students from Rock Hill’s Clinton College and other area community colleges was headed for Fayetteville, N.C., for its first game. A game never played.
The crash became a national story for two days as the wreckage was cleaned up and officials investigated. As the dead were buried and the rest healed, the team’s season was over before it started for this team created as a second chance for students after the crash that federal officials now say happened because of a blown tire on the bus rented from a Chester church.
All games for 2016 were canceled. Everybody was either hurt, or dead. Killed in the crash were the driver, 43-year-old Brian Andre Kirkpatrick of Chester; Clinton College students Devonte Gibson, 21, of Rock Hill and Tito Hamilton, 19, of Pahokee, Fla.; and Darice Lamont Hicks Jr., 8, of Rock Hill.
But Rawlinson and fellow coach Derrick Crawford, who both were hurt but survived, decided to try again this season. Ramah Juco Academy will play in the fall. For the first time.
“Those who died — they would have wanted me to continue helping others,” said Rawlinson, 42.
Crawford, 35, said Ramah offers players a chance to seek scholarships at four-year schools through showing athletic prowess, but the goal is helping young men get college degrees and better options in life. Some didn’t have the grades for regular college. Others didn’t have guidance or opportunity or did not use chances properly. Football is just a way to try to help those young men seek a future with football as the conduit, Crawford said.
“These are young men who need a second chance,” Crawford said. “Some of these young men want to re-invent themselves.”
The team renewal begins Tuesday with a booster dinner fundraiser at the Palmetto Room in downtown Rock Hill. Tickets are $30, with all proceeds going to the team’s expenses to put on a season.
Crawford said expected speakers include professional players agent Robert Walker, and Dwayne Harper, a former NFL player from Orangeburg.
The crash was investigated by North Carolina troopers and federal National Traffic Safety Board officials. The blowout of the left front tire caused the wreck, police said.
No criminal charges were filed, but officials said Sandy River Baptist Church should not have rented out the bus. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officials ordered the church shut down bus service because it is a threat to public safety.
Federal investigators found the church failed to have monitoring of its drivers, calling it reckless and unsupervised, with a complete and utter lack of compliance with federal safety regulations.
Rawlinson and Crawford are among 28 players and coaches who were on that bus who filed a lawsuit against the church in Chester County court. That lawsuit is pending. The lawsuit will likely change to include the tire manufacturer and distributor once those facts become clear, said Joel Hamilton and David Manzi, lawyers for the survivors.
The church has denied any wrongdoing, legal documents show. No trial date is set.
The insurance company for the church filed a separate lawsuit last year in Chester County court offering more than $2 million for the 41 passengers still alive and the four families of the deceased, court records show. It is unclear if any of the injured or deceased parties will accept the offer.
Other civil cases are likely and could take years as all sides argue over who was at fault. And who should pay. That is what courts are for.
But the team could not wait for the courts to play again. So in August, the team will suit up again.
The players will be different. Two of the past players died, a child of one of the coaches died, the driver of the bus died.
But the dream of young men playing football in college, postponed by a deadly crash, did not die.