MONROE -- Once the dust had settled on the Masuk football team's 47-10 season-opening victory over Pomperaug on Sept. 14, the Panthers dropped to one knee en masse and huddled -- like always -- around coach John Murphy near the 20-yard line of Benedict Field.
This particular postgame talk, while quite familiar, featured a first in Murphy's 16 years on the sidelines at Masuk -- a game ball awarded to a Panther player. It wasn't, however, all-everything senior Thomas Milone, who had scored five touchdowns in the win, or promising junior quarterback Malik Cummings, who had thrown for 280 yards in his starting varsity debut, receiving the ceremonial ball.
Rather, it was junior Russell Lilly -- a receiver only in for a handful of snaps and on special teams -- who took home the honors.
Lilly's name doesn't even appear in the box score from that night in September.
No, Lilly earned the admiration of his teammates and coaches for simply showing up barely five hours after his father, Norman, lost his six-month battle with cancer, passing away at the age of 52 at the Bridgeport Hospital hospice.
The usually stoic Murphy closed his emotional postgame talk with his usual refrain of "tell your parents you love them," with those words taking on a special significance in light of Lilly's personal tragedy.
"We were all in complete shock when he showed up," said Cummings, a classmate and friend of Lilly's away from the field. "It hit us more. I went home, I usually give my mom or dad a hug, but it was extra that night. Life in general is so short."
In an unfortunate coincidence, Lilly isn't the only Masuk athlete in the junior class to lose a parent to cancer in recent months. Tatum Buckley, the Panthers' starting softball pitcher, went through the entire 2012 season with her father, Kevin, hospitalized as he fought against lymphoma until finally succumbing in early August at the age of 53 after a near two-year fight.
In these difficult personal times, both Lilly and Buckley have leaned on sports to help them cope.
"It's a way to get your mind thinking of something else, and secondly, it's what we did together, so it's a way of carrying him on," said Buckley, noting how her father served as her coach, mentor and sounding board during his life.
For Lilly, the decision to play against Pomperaug with the death of his father only hours earlier wasn't as difficult as it might seem.
"My teammates have always been there for me," he said. "I knew if I didn't go, I'd basically be at home sitting around crying the whole time."
Lilly says continuing to play football -- a six-day-a-week pursuit since he also plays in JV games -- has helped him maintain a somewhat normal routine in the face of a tumultuous situation at home. Beyond that, being around his friends has helped him maintain his normal even-keel approach to life.
That night against Pomperaug, however, aside from the very end, remains nothing but a blur in Lilly's mind.
"I remember (Murphy) saying he had a fire and brimstone speech, but then he saw me and that's all he said, how proud he was that I was there," Lilly said.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
Norman Lilly's April diagnosis was that his cancer, which had spread to his lungs and kidneys, was too far advanced to treat. Russell's mother, Lisa, says Norman made it clear to his children, including Russell's older sister, Rachel, a sophomore at Towson University, and younger brother Brian, a freshman at Masuk, to keep living their lives to the fullest.
"The children didn't know how serious it was. He spent his remaining time preparing. He was an engineer, so he was meticulous," Lisa Lilly said. "My husband made it clear to the children that because he was so sick, he didn't want them sitting around and doing nothing."
The Lilly family suffered another loss earlier this month when Lisa Lilly's brother, Gary Mazzone, died from liver complications at the age of 55.
Football, though, remains a constant in his life each week.
"I feel the worst for my mom, because that was her brother," Russell Lilly said. "Every day at football is like the same, so it's a routine I can stick with. It's tough. My sister is at college. I'm gone most of the day so the house seems really empty."
From a clinical perspective, playing sports and staying in a group setting is a beneficial situation to help adolescents cope with loss. Dr. Sheila Cooperman, the vice chairman of psychiatry at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, thinks it's important since it keeps the young athletes from being alone and consumed by their grief.
"What can be so isolating is feeling that you're alone with a loss," Cooperman said. "Knowing there's a place to go, with people who know what you're struggling with, since you're less alone can be very helpful."
There are few positions in high school sports as isolated as the pitcher in softball as she stands by herself in the pitching circle, the game essentially riding on her right or left arm. Besides having that burden on her shoulders, Buckley pitched for two seasons knowing her father was fighting every day against cancer.
The support group of her teammates and coach Jacqui Sheftz were imperative in helping Buckley maintain her composure, as they made it to the Class LL semifinals. Most, if not all, the Masuk players knew Kevin Buckley from his involvement with the Monroe youth softball programs.
"I've just kept trying to do what he's always said to do and have fun and not see sports as a stressful area of my life," Tatum Buckley said.
There was still an untold amount of stress on the Buckley family away from the diamond. After every game Buckley and her mother, Patty, would visit Kevin at Yale-New Haven Hospital to help fill him in, either with a newspaper clipping or video shot on an iPad. It became what Patty Buckley called, "the new normal" with softball providing a crucial, needed distraction from the situation at hand.
"Thank God (Tatum) had softball because that's been her focus and distraction," Patty Buckley said. "When she's on the field, that's where she wants to be. That's where Kevin was, that was the right place for her to be.
"It was a terrible road, but softball is still getting her through it."
Kevin Buckley's initial diagnosis two years ago was positive, yet he took a turn for the worse in January when his immune system stopped fighting the cancer. Doctors tried injecting stem cells into his system to help, but his body rejected them.
He was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 24, but got one final chance to watch Tatum pitch when Masuk played Lauralton Hall on May 12 at DeLuca Field.
"It was awesome," Tatum Buckley said. "I just liked looking up in the stands and seeing him. He always gives me a thumbs up between innings so it was good to see that."
DeLuca Field also served as a memorial game for Kevin Buckley in August when Tatum's summer team, the CT Charmers, played the Stratford Brakettes with players wearing shirts with Kevin Buckley's name on them.
Like Tatum with her teammates, Lilly has had a profound effect upon the Panthers. Throughout the locker room, Lilly's courage to play in the opener has had a ripple effect. The Masuk football team was off to another strong start with a 5-0 record going into Saturday night's game at Brookfield.
"These guys on this field are his brothers. It shows a lot that he would care more to be here," Cummings said. "You want to play your heart out and win it for him."