Why Wesleyan Christian is more than an opponent after death of Southwest Covenant football player Peter Webb
The message reached Rocky Clark's desk early Monday afternoon.
An elementary principal from Southwest Covenant asked if he had any advice he'd be willing to share. Southwest Covenant football player Peter Webb died Sunday after suffering a head injury during a game, and four years ago, Clark dealt with a similar situation as the superintendent of Wesleyan Christian in Bartlesville.
Clark was happy to offer support — but sad he had to.
"You don't want anyone else to join this group," he said.
The fraternity of high schools that have had a football player die because of injuries suffered on the field grew over the weekend. Webb was injured while making a tackle Friday night, and Sunday morning, he died at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center.
He was only 16.
So was Ben Hamm.
He moved to Bartlesville and started at Wesleyan Christian in 2013 when he was a freshman. His dad, a pastor, had taken a job at Phillips 66, and his mom was hired as the third-grade teacher at Wesleyan Christian, a small private school offering prekindergarten through 12th grade.
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Ben quickly made friends, though those who knew him said he'd have done that wherever he was. If there was someone he didn't know, he'd go introduce himself and he'd want his friends to do the same.
He never followed the crowd.
"He absolutely was the guy on spirit day who was the most dressed up, the most fired up," Clark, the superintendent, said. "He was built like a little bowling ball, tough as they come, and had curly red hair, so he stood out even if he didn't want to."
"But his personality and everything he did was infectious, so he absolutely stood out."
That was the case in football, too. Even though injuries slowed him his first two seasons — a concussion as a freshman, torn muscle fibers in his neck as a sophomore — he was hitting a stride as a junior. He was a hard-hitting linebacker and a powerful running back.
He showed it in the fourth quarter against Woodland that September. He scored a touchdown, then on the ensuing kickoff went down and made a tackle.
But Hamm was slow to get up after the tackle, and once he did get to his feet, he was unsteady. He staggered toward the sideline, his legs shaking.
His dad was waved to the bench, and initially, Ben knew who his dad was. But then he started struggling to speak. Eventually, he began seizing.
Over the next week, Ben Hamm lay the hospital fighting for his life. While everyone at Wesleyan Christian tried to go on with school and activities and life, there were difficult moments. The football team's game the next Friday was particularly hard.
"The boys were rattled," Clark remembered. "You can't not be."
The upperclassmen who were closest in age to Ben were particularly skittish. Some would take a hit and immediately come out of the game, scared and nervous about what might happen.
Early the next morning, Ben Hamm died.
Thursday will be the four-year anniversary.
In the days and weeks after Ben died, Wesleyan Christian spent time looking in the mirror. While the school had followed every safety policy and procedure mandated by the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association — and even had a few extra precautions in place — Ben had still been fatally injured on the field.
Wesleyan Christian decided if an athlete suffered two concussions, no matter when or how severe they had been, they weren't going to be allowed to play sports for the school anymore.
But the school had discussions about more extreme measures.
"We took a hard look — I mean, a hard look — as a small school that's only involved in eight man, do we keep football?" Clark said. "That's a question that has to come up when this takes place."
Leaders talked with teachers, coaches, parents and students, and ultimately, Wesleyan Christian decided keeping football was the right move.
"We didn't lose a single player over it," Clark said.
But even as Wesleyan Christian was deciding that larger issue, it was caring for its own. Classes were canceled the Monday after Ben died, but grief counselors along with pastors were brought to the school and made available for anyone who needed help. Once classes resumed, students were given time to grieve, particularly those in the high school. They did projects to honor Ben, including decorating at the school and planning parts of a pregame ceremony for their home game that Friday.
Being a small school with well less than a hundred students in the high school made the grief more intense — a larger portion of the student body knew Ben than if he had been at a bigger school — but it also helped in the healing. Everyone knew everyone, so they were looking out for each other.
Clark has already offered help to Southwest Covenant, which is similar and size and scope, but he admits there is no blueprint.
"No one's an expert on this," he told Southwest Covenant's superintendent over the weekend. "You don't know what to do when it happens, but I can tell you some things that we did, how we tried to bring the community together, how we got through it."
Wesleyan Christian may well get to help Southwest Covenant in its healing — their football teams are scheduled to play Friday night.
While the status of game is pending, it seems fitting the schools would play at some point this season. Both play eight-man football. Both teach academics alongside faith. And now, both have experienced pain and loss that feels almost unbearable.
But over these past couple of days, Clark has been reminded what many at Wesleyan Christian said in the days after Ben Hamm died.
"We're gonna tell stories and we're gonna laugh and we're gonna remember him and honor his life," they said. "We're going to talk about it and we're gonna cry about it because that's OK."
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.