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Published August 21, 2011, 02:32 PM

NJ Community Grieves After 4 Teen Football Players Killed in Crash

A New Jersey high school and its community were grappling Sunday with a hard reality: four players on their local football team were dead and four others were injured in an SUV crash on the way to a team meal.

By: Geoff Mulvihill, Associated Press

LINWOOD, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey high school and its community were grappling Sunday with a hard reality: four players on their local football team were dead and four others were injured in an SUV crash on the way to a team meal.

The driver, 17-year-old Casey Brenner of Northfield, apparently lost control of the vehicle late Saturday morning as it went around a crest on the Garden State Parkway and came upon heavy traffic, said Sgt. Julian Castellanos, a state police spokesman.

The SUV overturned several times, ejecting two passengers, one of whom was struck by a passing car, Castellanos said.

All eight teenagers played for the Mainland Regional High School football team in Linwood. They ranged in age from 15 to 17.

The crash hung heavy over the community Sunday, where filling bleachers at the school's Friday night games is part of life every fall. The Mustangs have won six state championships, including five since Bob Coffey became head coach in 1986.

Before the crash, perhaps the greatest trial for the team came when it had to forfeit four games last year for using a player who transferred from another school and suited up without all the proper paperwork in place.

The victims' teammates planned to don game jerseys for the first time with their names stitched above the numbers to attend an evening vigil Sunday. And they expected to be together for funerals in the coming days.

Coffey said he'd look for direction from his players, but expected that practices would move ahead — in some form. But two scrimmages scheduled for this week were canceled.

"My gut feeling is that we live for the moment," he said. "As a coach and kids, you've got to take care of what's in front of you right now."

Brenner was killed, as were Dean Khoury of Linwood, 15; and two 16-year-olds, Edgar Bozzi of Somers Point and Nicholas Conner of Northfield.

Coffey said Brenner was competing to be the starting tight end, Bozzi was likely to get playing time as a linebacker, Khoury was working hard after Coffey nearly kicked him off the team for missing a practice, and Conner was one of the team's most enthusiastic special-teams players.

"All four of them were so happy, doing so well," said Coffey, who lives a few blocks from the high school in a spacious house where his players often gather.

Superintendent Thomas Baruffi described the four players who died as good students, good athletes and well-liked.

At Khoury's family's home in Linwood, the driveway and street were packed with relatives' cars. Many in the family were crying, including his mother, Denise Khoury.

"He was the boy who made everybody smile," she said.

The injured included two Linwood residents, 17-year-old Jacob Smith and 15-year-old Kenneth Randall, and two 16-year-old Northfield residents, Kyle Beattie and Alex Denafo.

Coffey said everyone except Smith was home from the hospital by Sunday afternoon, and Smith was expected home soon.

State police continued to investigate and had not released details on how fast the SUV was moving before the crash or whether the occupants were wearing seatbelts. Under New Jersey state law, drivers under 18 generally are not allowed to carry more than one passenger unless a parent or guardian is in the vehicle.

Brenner was driving his teammates to meet other players at the Old Country Buffet in Mays Landing, one of several places players often go to eat.

Neighborhoods in Linwood, Northfield and Somers Point — the tree-lined bedroom communities to Atlantic City — were quiet Sunday. The school serves all three.

A half-dozen high school students, friends of the deceased, ate lunch at Linwood Bagel, across from the school stadium. No one was giggling or guffawing as they ate, and the students didn't want to speak to an Associated Press reporter.

Mainland Mustangs' football field was still. A solitary jogger looped the track. Tackling dummies in the nearby practice field stood undisturbed.

In the evening, a candlelight vigil was scheduled at the stadium. Baruffi said giving people a place to come together and grieve was one thing the school could do to help. He said he's been through student deaths before, but has never lost multiple students at the same time.

"They're always tragic," he said. "You know there's nothing you can say or do that's enough."

He said he hoped the tragedy would make the school community stronger and closer. But "this is never a sacrifice you want to make," he added.

The team's first game is scheduled for Sept. 9, three days before the school year begins for Mainland's 1,600 students.

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Associated Press writer Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton contributed to this report.

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