Four Columbus football players made the solemn walk to midfield ready to greet the family of their fallen teammate and friend.
Patrick Silva and Jorge de la Pedraja stood in front, their navy blue uniforms juxtaposing the white No. 30 jersey they held between them.
Demetrius Ford and Lucas Medina followed with a signed team picture, everyone looking at that same No. 30 jersey.
Ari Arteaga was supposed to wear No. 30 this year, his junior year.
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But in the late hours of July 28, Ari, lost control of his Jeep Wrangler while driving on Southwest 87th Avenue and died in a single-car crash. He was 16. Ari’s girlfriend, Indira Rambarran, survived the crash in the passenger seat. Florida Highway Patrol’s accident report said both Ari and Indira were wearing seat belts.
“We’re all still hurting,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said.
The Explorers honored Ari prior to their season opener on Thursday — a 35-0 win over Mater Academy. It was a brief ceremony, maybe 10 minutes, but the meaning behind it will last for the Arteagas.
“I didn’t go to Columbus, but I’ve always heard about the brotherhood. It’s a real thing,” J.D. Arteaga, Ari’s father and the associate head coach for the Miami Hurricanes baseball team, said Thursday. “It’s through tough times that you see it come out. Without a doubt it came out. It’s helped us incredibly.”
No amount of time — let alone a mere three-and-a-half weeks — will take the pain away.
But Merritt hopes the team’s small gestures from Thursday night helped in some way. In addition to the ceremony, the team is wearing a patch on the left side of its helmets with Ari’s name.
“We just wanted to show them publicly how important their son is to us — and still is — and bring a little more closure,” Merritt said. “There’s no doubt what he means to his teammates and his classmates. We had to find a way just to honor him and we’ll continue to do that throughout the year.”
Columbus honored Ari with their performance on the field, too. The Explorers (1-0), hoping to be a contender once again in Class 8A this year and follow up its 2017 run to the regional quarterfinals, made quick work of Mater Academy (0-1).
Columbus jumped out to a 21-0 lead by halftime and tacked on two more touchdowns by the early fourth quarter. Running back Henry Parrish had two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving. Receiver Xzavier Henderson had two touchdown catches. Ford closed out scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run with about 11 minutes left to play.
The Explorers defense held Mater Academy to one first down.
Merritt knows there is still work to be done, though.
“We know that we’ve got to get better every week and these last two weeks have taught us some of the deficiencies we have on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Merritt said. “Now our job as a coaching staff is to get them fixed and continue to get better.”
Columbus doesn’t have much time to make those corrections. It’s next three opponents: home against Northwestern, at Carol City and Booker T. Washington at Curtis Park.
“Understand what’s ahead of us,” Merritt told his team after the game. “It’s time to strap it on. We have very little practice time. We get two or three days for every opponent to get ready for them. ... Get your mind right, right now.”
Regardless of what happens, they know they have Ari Arteaga watching over them.
“He’s going to guide us through the season,” Ford said. “When we are tired or feel like we’re getting beat down, we know Ari has our back. It gives us something to keep striving for.”
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