Providence Day’s Adam Hastings said the last thing a high school football coach thinks he’ll have to deal with is the death of a player. Now, he’s gone though it twice.
About five years ago, when he was coaching at Ardrey Kell High, Hastings found out that one of his players, then two years into college, had died suddenly. About two weeks ago, right after an emotional homecoming victory over rival Charlotte Country Day, Hastings got word that Providence Day student-athlete Nathan Kocmond had been found dead, of an apparent suicide, in the Uwharrie National Forest.
“My heart sunk,” Hastings said. “But I coached through the loss of my dad. It was the toughest experience of my life and football was my outlet. When I was coaching, I didn’t have to think about what to do with his stuff, or about my brother, or about not having my best friend anymore, really. Football was my time to go out there, have fun and coach ’em up.
“Having that taught me a great lesson about football and having that experience, well, it helped guide me through this one.”
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In 2008, Joel Hastings was chasing a fly ball in the outfield playing rec softball. He banged heads with a teammate and fell backward, hitting his head on the ground. He was airlifted from Morganton to Charlotte and died three days later. Adam Hastings said all of that quickly came back to him when he and his team were told about Kocmond in the locker room after the Country Day win on Friday, Oct. 13.
And the first thing Hastings could think of was that football helped him get through this type of thing once, and maybe it could help him – and his team of teenagers – get through it again.
“It was tragic,” Hastings said. “For a lot of the young men, it hadn’t hit them what happened. But we had some great leadership at school who did a really great job of getting a hold of our team and finding ways for us to interact. But for a lot of the guys, this was the first funeral they went to, their first encounter with death. It was a challenge.”
Hastings kept reminding his team to lean on football, to use football to honor Kocmond’s memory. And so, a season that was already turning into something special, now had a little extra meaning.
Now Providence Day (8-1, 2-0 Big South conference) has won seven straight games and is tied with Charlotte Christian (7-1, 2-0) for first place. The teams meet Friday night at Providence Day for the conference championship. This is Providence Day’s best season in five years and the Chargers are one victory away from tying the school record, perhaps three away from the school’s third state championship.
To a man, whatever they do, they say they are dedicating all of it to their fallen teammate.
“None of us have gone through this before,” said senior Kyle Wood, a Washington & Lee recruit who tweeted a heartfelt message to Kocmond the day after he died. “(Nathan) was on the team and had been working out with us all summer. We’re trying to move forward and not dwell on it too much, but to use it as motivation.”
Wood said that coach Hastings’ message of using football to help guide them through the ordeal has worked wonders.
“When we’re on the field,” Wood said, “we can kind of push all of our problems off the field to the side. It serves as an escape or coping mechanism for most of us.”
Kocmond suffered a concussion about six weeks before he died.
Nathan’s parents, Jon and Sarah Kocmond, said their son had severe headaches for weeks after his concussion and seemed somewhat down, but had recently shown signs of recovery.
On Monday, Oct. 9, Kocmond left his family’s home and missed a scheduled Boy Scout meeting. His cellphone was turned off and his social media accounts were deleted. He never came home. A search began the next day, with Panthers star Greg Olsen asking Twitter followers to help. A GoFundMe account to collect money for the search raised $43,000 in 48 hours.
The news of the search dominated talk at Providence Day during homecoming week, and the day after Kocmond was found, Sarah Kocmond met with many of the players. She did so again at her son’s funeral last week. By then, the team was planning to wear helmet stickers with Kocmond’s No. 42 on them.
“She said, ‘Nathan will watch over us the rest of the year,’” Wood said. “And she said ‘42’ is going to show up in all of our lives. She literally said, ‘You all will score 42 points (in the homecoming game against Christ School) and win the game.’”
Last Friday, when Providence Day beat Christ School 42-25, Wood remembered looking up at the scoreboard, remembering her words, and...
“I was in shock,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was a feeling I can’t describe.”
Wood’s teammate, Duke-bound senior defensive lineman Elijiah Brown, had a similar experience.
“It’s like she spoke the truth and it feels like Nathan is watching over us, and he’s going to push us on,” Brown said. “We told ourselves that everything we do for the rest of this season, we’re going to do for Nathan. We always say we play for each other, and we always go by that, and we’re always going to be there for each other no matter what goes down. Especially now. Especially for Nathan.”