A homecoming victory with a deeper meaning

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  • The Georgia Southern football team defeated NMSU on Saturday with their teammate in mind.

Amanda Arnold

STATESBORO — The Georgia Southern victory over New Mexico State on Homecoming Saturday had a different meaning for the team. It would mark the first game that they would be without freshman offensive lineman Jordan Wiggins, who passed away Monday night.

“Today was the end of a really emotional week for everybody, including myself,” redshirt-junior linebacker Rashad Byrd said. “We lost a brother, so that’s tough. We’re now playing for him.”

The team has been struggling all week with the loss of their teammate and practice could not go on as usual. The coaching staff did not require any mandatory meetings or practices and the players were not required to play in Saturday’s non-conference matchup.

Byrd, a leader on-and-off the field, was not sure that he was ready. On Saturday morning, he told some of the coaching staff that he wasn’t sure he wanted to play, but after praying when he went home, he made up his mind that he should play. In the game, he scored his second career touchdown interception.

“He wasn’t sure if he could go,” Head Coach Chad Lunsford said. “What I told him was, ‘Don’t play, don’t play. If you’re not ready, don’t play. Nobody’s going to judge you, nobody’s going to be mad… just don’t play.’ He went home… he came back, he laid it on the line for his brothers…There’s several who have struggled all week.”

Lunsford has never had to deal with a tragedy like this in his coaching career and was not sure how to handle the shock at first. He has allowed the team to take the time to grieve and emphasizes that he does not want to rush the process because everyone deals with hardship differently. 

“It’s not about me,” he said. “God’s got his hand on this football team, I’m not talking about wins and losses, I’m talking about in life. We didn’t know what to do, we didn’t have a recipe for success in this situation.”

Lunsford has stated that the loss of Wiggins is definitely ‘the toughest adversity’ that the team has faced, on top of the team’s recent injury woes, and the healing process has just begun. 

“It’s still going to be there and it’s still something we’ve got to deal with,” Lunsford said. “Just because we won the football game doesn’t mean it’s going to take the pain away.” 

Wiggins was a scheduled redshirt for this season and was found unresponsive in his dorm on Monday after a family member called GSPD and requested a welfare check for the 18-year-old. The death has been called an intentional overdose by the Bulloch County Coroner. 

College coaches from all over the country have reached out to the team and University on social media to offer their condolences and show support. Throughout the week, images of Wiggins have been displayed in Paulson Stadium. 

At the entrance of the stadium on Saturday, small teal and purple ribbon stickers were handed out to honor Wiggins and bring more awareness for suicide prevention, while the players wore purple mouthguards. 

At 1:47 p.m., players and fans gathered at the end zone to observe a moment of silence for Wiggins and right before the National Anthem, the crowd observed another moment of silence for those affected by suicide. 

In the game, the first game ending in regulation time since September, the team rushed for over 400 total yards. 

The offense was led by junior running backs Wesley Kennedy III and J.D. King, who accounted for 286 combined yards. 

The weather was the second consecutive downpour of the season and the attendance was a season low of 10,907 attendees.

The team will continue to take their time and train to honor their late friend. They will have a short week before traveling to Boone, North Carolina for a rivalry game against an undefeated Appalachian State team.

Amanda Arnold, The George-Anne Sports Editor, gasports@georgiasouthern.edu