When the Waterloo Bulldogs emerged from their locker room at Mater Dei High School in Breese on Friday, they were carrying much more than the jersey of a fallen football teammate.
Senior defensive tackle David Woodall took his own life last Wednesday and his brother, junior offensive lineman Spencer Woodall, led the silent Bulldogs procession onto the field for pregame warmups while holding David’s No. 73 jersey.
Along with a jersey, the Bulldogs were carrying thoughts and memories of a teammate and friend that many of them had known for years. Two days after they heard the tragic news, they were back on the football field trying to deal with raw reality and the emotion of an incredibly rough week.
What happened next may have surprised them a little.
“It was Mater Dei’s Senior Night and when we walked on the field, everything that was going on stopped and everybody in the stadium gave us a standing ovation,” Waterloo coach Dan Rose said.
When Waterloo returned to the locker room and came back out prior to the game, it happened again with another loud ovation from everyone in the stadium. Mater Dei parents prepared to honor their sons on Senior Nights near the Waterloo bench took part in the outpouring of warmth and support for a family and team that was hurting.
While Mater Dei always begins each game with a prayer, the Knights also had a moment of silence in Woodall’s memory. That moment of silence was played out before other games throughout the metro-east Friday night, including the Althoff-Triad and Highland-Charleston games.
“It was very, very respectful,” Rose said of the treatment the Bulldogs received in Breese. “There was a lot of dignity, integrity and grace involved in that whole process that went on at Mater Dei. It was special.”
Waterloo (5-4) lost the game 27-21 as Mater Dei clinched a playoff spot, but Rose said the Bulldogs played inspired football throughout the night. Woodall’s jersey was displayed on the team’s bench.
Mater Dei scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, but the Bulldogs put together a long drive in the final quarter that ended with a forced fumble near the Knights’ end zone.
“To do that any time is inspirational, but when you put a different level of thought in that, to go 96 yards at that time was pretty special,” said Rose, who spoke of the extremely quiet bus ride back to Waterloo from Breese. “Events sometimes put a football game in perspective. It was important to win, but the most important thing to come out of Friday night was to play the game — and to play the game in a way that David would have wanted us to play the game.
“I think we did that.”
On Thursday and Friday, the extended Waterloo High and football family received an avalanche of support from other football coaches, teams, players and fans throughout the St. Louis area and beyond. Rose said he fielded calls, texts and emails from all over, including from Quincy and near Chicago, saying the Bulldogs and the player’s family were in their thoughts and prayers.
“It was really unbelievable, all the thoughts sent to the Woodall family and the Waterloo football program,” Rose said. “I hope it gives some solace to the family that David did have an effect on people’s lives, even the people that didn’t know him. The outpouring of care from all the other places toward the Woodall family was something special.”
Triad football coach Paul Bassler, whose team competes against Waterloo in the Mississippi Valley Conference, spoke to his team early Thursday morning after learning the news about Woodall.
Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke, whose team plays host to conference rival Waterloo in a state playoff game at 1 p.m. Saturday, said football’s tight-knit family feeling extends far beyond the playing field.
“We’re all about family and I know Dan Rose, too, and a lot of coaches there,” Warnecke said. “There’s deep respect there for each other and I couldn’t imagine being in that situation.”
Rose said Spencer Woodall, Waterloo’s starting right tackle, was adamant about the team playing the game as scheduled on Friday. His teammates were up to the task.
“They all knew David and they knew that David would have wanted them to play hard and not worry about him,” Rose said. “That was always his intent on a Friday night, to play hard, and he did. Spencer is a pillar of strength in our program.
“David will always be in our hearts. He will be in my heart the rest of my life and you’ve got to keep his memory there and honor him by being a dedicated person.”
On Saturday night, the team gathered at the school weight room to watch the Illinois High School Association football playoffs announcement show and see where they would be in the opening round.
Earlier in the week, Waterloo school officials offered grief counseling to players and students. Rose and his staff also spoke to the players, who all felt the loss in their own way.
“The kids probably helped the coaches more than we helped them,” Rose said. “We did our best to counsel them and give them strength, but the kids gave us as much strength as we gave them. My players and coaches were a good support system and the administration were a good support system, but any prayers out there need to go to the Woodall family for their support.”