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Under Friday night lights, Georgia high school ‘played from the heart’ to win first game since teammate’s death

Brad Webber, Head football Coach at Pike County High School spoke with CNN's Nick Valencia Tuesday about the death of 16-year-old football player Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas’ number was painted on the faces of Pike County High School cheerleaders, emblazoned on T-shirts, wristbands and the towels hanging from his teammates’ waists.

Balloons of No. 32 floated in the air under the Friday night lights of the field in Macon, south of Atlanta.

The 16-year-old Pike County linebacker — who wore No. 32 — collapsed in the third quarter during a football game last week. Dylan had to be helped off the field. He lost consciousness and died of a head injury two days later, on Sunday.

There were reminders of Dylan everywhere — even in the prayer by the play-by-play announcer who pastored a local church — as the teenager’s teammates slugged it out with Rutland High School on Friday, Pike’s first game since Dylan’s death.

Fans and parents wore red shirts that had Dylan’s initials and number. Coaches wore red shirts with his name on the back.

What was supposed to be just another Friday night game for the Pirates took on new meaning. Teammates said they were determined to play for Dylan — who was known as DT — and for everyone in the close-knit community, such as the churchgoers who welcomed players into their sanctuaries in the days following Dylan’s death. His parents wanted the team to play, too.

“The loss of Dylan will now force us to strengthen our hearts,” Jordan Holley said of his teammate in a message to CNN. “We may not be the fastest, strongest or best team in our region and we may not win another game this season but moving forward there’s not a single high school team in the United States that has more heart than us, right now.”

Paying respects to No. 32

Twenty-four hours before the game, hundreds attended Dylan’s funeral. His teammates and members of the junior varsity team wore their red jerseys following his family’s request.

Mourners painted the number 32 on car windows.

A group of players from Peach County High School — the team Pike County played when Dylan was fatally injured — came to pay their respects Thursday. Peach County Coach Chad Campbell had told his team it was going to be a tough day. Two years ago, two Peach County players died in a car accident, he said.

Campbell said he knew what Pike County was going through, and how community matters.

“Pike County loves their sports and their community. This is a rallying cry for that community and knowing from our circumstances a couple years ago, it made our community get closer,” he told CNN.

The Georgia High School Association, which oversees Georgia high school sports, said there is no evidence of negligence in Dylan’s death. Coaches took every precaution, the association said.

Pike County Coach Brad Webber said officials were unsure how or when Dylan was injured. Coaches reviewed the game to try to figure out what happened. Did he take a big hit, for example?

Nothing stood out. And that’s what makes it harder, Webber said.

“If you know, you can prevent things. But just the way that happened, it’s just devastating,” he said.

In a Facebook post apparently by Dylan’s mother, Shannon Burgess Thomas, she said her “heart is broken today.” The post thanked everyone for “the love you have shown for … our baby boy.”

“Dylan Thomas is in a better place and holding gods (sic) hand believe that,” the post said.

On Friday’s bus ride to Macon from Zebulon — where the high school is located — the Pirates were silent as they prepared for the game. Webber recalled sensing a somberness. He wondered whether their emotions would overwhelm them.

“The football field to these guys is kind of our sanctuary,” Webber said.

Pike players knelt and prayed in the end zone. The pastor, Benjamin Newberry, who was Rutland’s play-by-play announcer, prayed for the Pike community, Dylan and his family.

“We pray for protection,” said Newberry, a dairy farmer whose son plays for the Rutland team.

Rutland released red and black balloons before the game.

Newberry announced the names of the captains, leaving Dylan’s name for last. Fellow Pike captains carried Dylan’s jersey on the field for the coin toss.

The touchdowns came quickly for the Pirates, minutes apart. As seconds ticked away in the first half, Pike scored again. They were leading by 32 — Dylan’s number.

In the locker room, Webber didn’t have to say much.

“Just keep playing,” he recalled telling them.

Each time a Pike player scampered into the end zone, a sea of red cheered and rang cowbells.

In the end, the Pirates were victorious — 48-2.

“They played from the heart,” said 61-year-old Shirley Heard, a school bus driver who has been attending Pike County football games since the 70s.

Both teams knelt in the middle of the field, and like the pastor, Webber prayed “that God’s hand of protection will be over both teams, be over all these kids, be over our communities.”

And together, the players shouted one last time. “DT!”