HARRAH — Every day at Harrah football practice, Matt Grace was camped out next to a video camera, taping various parts of the Panthers' workouts to be used as a teaching tool later in the week.
It might not sound like much, but players credited the practice video — something they had never utilized before — as a significant reason for their improvement this season.
Another piece of fourth-ranked Harrah's success came from the strong foundation laid by the seniors from last year's team, which went 8-3. Jonathan Adams was one of those players.
Grace, 18, was killed in a car accident on Oct. 9, and Adams died of a sudden illness one day later, rocking the Harrah community, and especially the football team.
“You can't ever be prepared for something like this,” senior quarterback Eddie Reynolds said. “Matt was my best friend. The whole team can't believe it.”
Grace grew up in Harrah, but moved to Seminole for a portion of his high school career. After moving back, he was ruled ineligible for his senior season, so he volunteered to videotape practices, just to do anything to be around the team. Coach Greg Willis said Grace likely would have been a starter for the Panthers had he been eligible.
“He just did whatever he could to help,” Willis said. “That one really impacted our seniors, because a lot of them had known him since elementary school. He was just a great kid who meant a lot to our players.”
Adams, 19, played a significant role on last year's team, and was continuing his career as a redshirt freshman at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
After battling a sudden illness for a couple of days, he died Monday, Oct. 10.
“That senior class was so important to the progress we've made here,” Willis said. “They were freshmen when I became the coach. He still has a sister in the high school. That really hit a lot of us hard.”
Willis had their jersey numbers painted on the field for last Friday's game against Santa Fe South. And despite the difficult week, Harrah fought through for a 41-20 victory.
Football, in a sense, has provided a safe haven for the players in battling the emotional difficulties of losing two friends in two days.
“We got the win on Friday for our buddies,” senior Jake Queen said. “It's about bonding with your brothers and fighting through.
“Things like football really help to get your mind off it, everything from practice to going to school with your teammates. It helps you get over something like this.”
Now, the Panthers turn their focus to a Thursday night game at Douglass, the defending Class 4A champion, which could have significant district championship implications. Add in the emotion of the last two weeks, and Harrah's players expect a lot of inspiration to be flowing on Thursday.
“I think this experience has brought us closer as a team, and I think that's what Matt and Jon would have wanted,” senior Brandon McDonald said. “We've dedicated the rest of the season to them, and we're sticking it in God's hands, just taking it one day at a time.
“It will be a real emotional night.”
Memorial funds have been created for each player. Grace's memorial fund is at Arvest Bank branches, and Adams' is at BancFirst locations.