By Phil Stacey
---- — WINTHROP — The stickers — a simple blue oval with ‘CR’, ‘In Loving Memory’ and the outline of a heart covered with footprints, all in white — were placed on the bottom right side of the Danvers High football helmets.
They just as easily could have been placed over the Danvers High football players’ hearts.
Playing for the first time since Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old math teacher at the high school, was murdered at the school five days earlier, the Falcons took to the gridiron Saturday night. Putting aside the horrific events of the week, they defeated host Winthrop 39-27 before a large crowd on a chilly night at Miller Field.
“It was obviously tough with everything that happened this week,” said Danvers High captain Alex Valles, whose team won its sixth straight game. “But we had to rally around each other, and we knew the town would rally around us.”
It has been an emotionally draining and physically exhausting seven days for Danvers High students, faculty, administration, parents and townsfolk. The shocking death of the much-beloved Ritzer — whom Danvers football coach Sean Rogers estimates half his team either had as a math teacher, in study hall or knew her in some fashion — has left this picture-perfect town with an enormous void.
Athletics, said Rogers, has been a way for his team (and others at the school) to escape from the awful realities of late, even if only for a few hours. Saturday night, his playoff-bound Northeastern Conference South champions certainly did that while also honoring Ritzer’s memory.
“It was tough at the beginning ... a tough thing to go through,” said junior Cris Valles, who had Ritzer as a teacher.
“To me, (winning) was something I wanted to do personally (for Ritzer) ... I’m sure everyone else felt the same way.”
Winthrop could not have been any more of a gracious host to the Danvers community. No admission was charged for the game; instead, donations would go to the Danvers High School Colleen Ritzer Scholarship Fund. Proceeds from the night’s 50/50 raffle were also donated to the scholarship.
Prior to the start of the game, a moment of silence was held for Ritzer, and pink balloons were released into the night sky. In addition to players, coaches and most fans were wearing the stickers in Ritzer’s memory, and the American flag at Miller Field was flown at half staff.
“When I first heard the news of what happened, I texted Sean (Rogers) right away and told him and Sully (Danvers athletic director John Sullivan), ‘Whatever you guys need, we’ll do.’ If they wanted to hold off playing until Sunday, Monday ... we would have done whatever they needed,” Winthrop head football coach and athletic director Sean Driscoll said.
Rogers and the Danvers community more than appreciated those sentiments. “We talk about having a football fraternity,” he said, “and Winthrop rallied around us to give us to give us the support we needed.
“We as a team talked a lot about rallying within ourselves and turning to your brother when you need him,” Rogers added. “We preach ‘family’ all the time, and they really buy into it. Our guys were there for each other.”
Always good-natured, Driscoll said after the contest what most people around the North Shore — and beyond — were certainly thinking.
“We knew going into this that anyone in the country would want Danvers to win,” Driscoll said. “Unless you were a Winthrop fan or parent, you wanted Danvers to win (Saturday).”