Andrew Dys

Bus crash ruined last season. Irma blew comeback. Will Rock Hill football team play?

Will Ramah Juco Academy ever play a football game?

A deadly bus crash a year ago Sunday on the way to its first game that left four people dead cost Rock Hill’s second-chance football program for junior college players its first football season. No games were played. The season was funerals and lawsuits.

But a comeback was planned. There was months of planning and practices. The first game was set for Sept. 9 against the club team for the University of Florida. Hurricane Irma hammered Florida and the Southeast, and the Gator team could not travel to Rock Hill for the game.

As the anniversary of the fatal crash arrives Sunday, team coaches and supporters say Ramah will play and will persevere. The team’s courage to keep trying has even attracted a sports documentary on Raycom Sports.

Still, Ramah Rams football has just been tears and plans and hope -- but no touchdowns.

“We planned on having our first game against the Florida team at home in York County, a celebration, but they couldn’t travel to get here,” said Bakari Rawlinson, head coach and one of the founders of the team that allows young players who did not capitalize on first chances an opportunity to play for college opportunities from football. “We were so excited. But we understand when something happens.”

Something sure did happen to Ramah. A terrible something.

The crash of a bus rented from a Chester church on Sept. 17, 2016, near Rockingham., N.C., on the way to the first game in Fayetteville, N.C., injured 40 people and left four dead. Killed in the crash were the driver, Andre Kirkpatrick, 43, of Chester; Clinton College students Devonte Gibson, 21, of Rock Hill and Tito Hamilton, 19, of Pahokee, Fla; and son of a coach Darice Lamont Hicks Jr., 8, of Rock Hill.

The crash and the awful aftermath gained national attention that day a year ago. Police said a tire blew, and federal officials later said after an investigation the church bus was not licensed to be rented for commercial use. The football season was canceled.

In the aftermath, lawsuits were filed. A $2 million settlement with the church’s insurance company, reported exclusively by The Herald, will pay the families of the injured and the dead.

“The coaches and players on this team have never given up,” said Joel Hamilton, one of the Rock Hill lawyers representing most of the team’s players and coaches in the lawsuits still seeking the tire manufacturer. “Their comeback is really about courage and not giving up.”

There have been fundraisers and dinners and other functions to raise enough cash to support a program still in its infancy and never played single down.

Yet what the team always wanted was to play football. And still that is what they want. Ramah Juco does not want to be the team of the bus crash. They want to be the team that plays, scores and potentially sends players off to four-year colleges.

The crash was so terrible a year ago that some first responders in North Carolina who were at the scene were planning to attend the Sept. 9 game to show their support. But the excitement after a year lost to pain and rebirth was demolished when Irma showed up.

All involved wanted to put the crash in the rear-view mirror and play, Hamilton said.

“We want to get on the field, have the players play, have that special feeling of playing in a game for the first time,” said assistant coach Derrick Crawford, who like Rawlinson was injured in the crash.

Another coach, Marcus Thomspon, suffered a punctured lung and other injuries.

“We have gone through so much adversity, we had to make this happen,” Thompson said.

Now, the first game is set for Sept. 23, away, against Virginia A & M. The team will have to board a bus to get there. Yes, there will be nervousness about the bus trip. But it must be done, said Rawlinson the coach.

The team has hired a Rock Hill commercial bus company this time.

“We expect to go there and play and come home a winner,” Rawlinson said.

The team plays its first home game at 6 p.m. Sept. 30 at Fort Mill High School.

The leaders of this team that has never played a game yet will not quit say Ramah will be there.

Want to go?

A community day For the Ramah Team with skills camp for children and more is at 5 p.m. Sept. 16 at Carroll Park in Rock Hill. For schedule and more information visit Ramah Juco Academy’s Facebook page.