On a recent trip home to Riverhead, Troy Trent bumped into a familiar face: former teammate John Anderson, who was in his senior year at Riverhead High School.
Mr. Trent, a 2015 graduate, was a standout football player for the Blue Waves when Mr. Anderson was on the junior varsity team. The two played similar positions and developed a bond that endured following Mr. Trent’s graduation.
He became a mentor to Mr. Anderson, someone the younger man could look to for advice about football or college. Fittingly, the pair recently saw each other at Riverhead’s new turf field while playing pickup football.
On Sunday night, however, Mr. Trent received a text message with devastating news: Mr. Anderson had been found dead of an apparent suicide earlier that day at Reeves Beach. He was 18.
“He was a good kid,” Mr. Trent said. “It goes to show that even the people who seem like everything is good and they’re just living that good life, that some things are hard for those people. I would never expect anything to be bothering him. He was that one person who was outgoing, always talking to people.”
Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller said Mr. Anderson died from an apparent gunshot wound. The incident “appears to be non-criminal at this time,” he added.
The news left the Riverhead community stunned this week as residents tried to comprehend what happened. Mr. Anderson was a leader on the football team, a player teammates and coaches described as an athletic and tough competitor.
“One of the things John was very good at was he had empathy for other kids,” said longtime varsity coach Leif Shay. “He would go out of his way to give a kid a ride to practice. He would go out of his way to help a younger freshman who might be struggling and keep him in the program.”
Teammates and friends gathered for a candlelight vigil Monday night at the football field, where a memorial with flowers, candles and pictures of Mr. Anderson in his No. 63 Blue Waves uniform was erected.
Abby Weir, a senior at Riverhead, visited the memorial Tuesday afternoon with two friends while other students stayed back with counselors. She had attended the previous night’s vigil.
“All of our friends kind of just stuck together,” she said.
Mr. Shay described students as being in a “state of shock.”
“There’s just a feeling of emptiness,” he said. “Everybody is coping in their own way.”
Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney said in a statement Monday that “there are no words that can fully encapsulate the grief that the entire Riverhead community is feeling in the face of this tragedy. We stand with the Anderson family today in sympathy and sadness.”
Counseling services were available to students this week and Ms. Carney said the school has reached out to other agencies for additional support.
Mr. Anderson began this past football season with high expectations for his senior year. A 6-foot-tall lineman, he won a starting position as a junior on the varsity team and was expected to have an even larger role this season. An injury sustained early in training camp in which he tore ligaments and a muscle in his right elbow, however, limited him before the season even began.
After watching from the sidelines as his team lost its first four games, he returned to the field to help lead the Blue Waves to a 27-26 victory over Copiague in October.
Mr. Trent, who played one year of college football, recalled offering advice to Mr. Anderson as he coped with his injuries.
“I gave him words of encouragement, like, if you are able to make it back this season, make the most of it,” he said. “My junior year I dislocated my shoulder and wasn’t able to play the majority of the season. I told him, if you’re able to come back by the end of the season, just give it your all.”
After the Blue Waves’ win over Copiague, teammate Kyle Kelly told the News-Review that Mr. Anderson had attended every practice and workout while he was injured.
“He’s the best leader we have,” Mr. Kelly said.
In an interview this week, Mr. Shay described Mr. Anderson as a typical teenager who enjoyed spending time with friends. Classmate Jaliah Gordon, a sophomore, recalled seeing him every fourth period.
“Even though we didn’t really know each other, he’d always talk to me every time I’d see him in the hallways,” she said.
While football was his primary sport, Mr. Anderson competed on the track team earlier in high school, Mr. Shay said.
He had recently been accepted to SUNY/Cortland and Hartwick College, his coach said, and hoped to play football at whichever school he attended.
“There’s never anything more difficult than losing one of your own,” Mr. Shay said.
Visiting hours for Mr. Anderson will take place from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today, Thursday, March, 9, at Alexander-Tuthill Funeral Home in Wading River. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, March 10, at St. John the Baptist R.C. Church in Wading River.
Top photo: A memorial erected at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field in memory of John Anderson. (Credit: Krysten Massa)