Sidney football team honors fallen teammate with moment of silence

Kirt Manion
Nebraska City News-Press

A moment of silence before last Friday’s home football game against West Monona honored a Sidney football player who never got the chance to represent the Cowboys on the field.

Zachary K. Shelly, 14, of Hamburg, was just starting his journey as a Sidney football player with camp sessions and conditioning drills when the unthinkable happened.

Shelly was on his way to Sidney to help park cars at the rodeo on a normal day in late July. The activity was actually part of a fundraiser to help the Cowboys’  football team. During that trip, the vehicle in which Shelly was a passenger hydroplaned leading to an accident and injuries which would claim the life of the young student and football player.

The Sidney team had not really been given a chance to get to know Zach. He worked with his position group at camp—offensive linemen. Other players saw him coming and going. The relationship between Zach and all his teammates would come later. There would be time.

That’s what everyone thought.

Coach Donnie Sears said he had chances to interact with Zach and said the Hamburg athlete had already impressed him with dedication. On one occasion, Sears said Zach had been left in Hamburg without a ride to get to conditioning. That’s an activity most kids would be glad to have an excuse to miss.

Instead of taking the ready made excuse, however, Zach got on his four-wheeler and made a back roads trip to the conditioning session. He wasn’t to be denied. He obviously wanted to be there.

Another interaction between coach and player was especially memorable. It was one that revolved around picking a jersey. Sears said he and Zach had some fun with the jersey selection. Zach called out numbers, only to be told those numbers already had owners. He settled on one, only to realize it was a number that wouldn’t work for an offensive lineman in the 11-man game. Zach started picking numbers. And, again, Coach Sears would have to tell him that the numbers were already taken.

Finally Coach Sears said he suggested the No. 65, a special number for the coach since it was the number he had worn during a high school career playing for Hamburg’s legendary coach, Bob Weber.

In just a few camp sessions and some conditioning, coach and player already had a story—one that might have been told on graduation day.

Then the tragedy. And the news hit Sidney hard.

Players gathered for a vigil and Coach Sears said the team was getting updates from Zach’s mom. Hopes for a recovery were dashed as the news of Zach’s passing began to be shared.

Coach Sears said losing someone is tough for any town of any size and any team or any school. For kids that just lost one of their own—a young person in their peer group, it was particularly hard.

But the connection had been made.

In the short time that Zach had called himself a Sidney Cowboy, he and his family had formed a bond with the program.

No one would come to realize this more than Coach Sears, who took a call from the family requesting that Zach be laid to rest in his game day jersey—No. 65—after a service was to take place on the very field where Sears had played a high school career wearing that same number.

“It was by far the toughest phone call I have ever taken,” said Coach Sears.

The decision by the family to dress their son in a Sidney jersey spoke to Sears about the connection. Football is an activity. But the connection with people is what matters.

“There’s a lot going on down here other than throwing and catching a football,” Coach Sears said.

For the players, the loss of Zach leaves hurt and confusion. It also lets people know that the things we take for granted shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“They realized how quickly everything can change,” Sears said of his players.

On Friday, the team took the field carrying the idea of what could have been—the relationship they should have had and the Sidney football career that should have been.

Seniors Tyler Hensley, a running back, and Chase Price, a wide receiver, took a moment to speak Monday in regard to the team’s loss and of their method for coping with it this season.

Both players agreed that playing hard and being dedicated to the team were ways to honor Zach. Price said Zach was a new face and someone he wanted to get to know. When one day that new face was suddenly gone, it was obviously hard to process what had happened.

“He was a teammate,” Price said.

That was enough. Obviously there would be more. But the connection existed.

On Friday, the team had its moment to remember Zach. And then they got about the business of football and of trying to figure out the 11-man game. A year when the team switched from 8 to 11 man was the same one in which COVID-19 had cost so much of the time they needed to make the transition. And so the season was going to come with a challenge.

The challenge of dealing with a fallen teammate is one that’s much tougher.

But the players won’t forget.

At game’s end on Friday, both teams got together and prayed.

At tonight’s road game at Shenandoah, the Sidney players will carry Zach’s jersey to their sideline and display it on their bench. They are going to keep Zach and his family in their thoughts. This isn’t over.

Zach may be gone, but he’ll always be a Sidney Cowboy—forever.