LAGRANGE — They could not move.
They could not speak.
Saturday morning, grief paralyzed Keystone High School students as school officials tried to say and do anything to help ease the pain of losing a young life.
Football coach Don Griswold organized the impromptu memorial to beloved football player Nathaniel Barrett after news spread through the small, close-knit community that the 17-year-old junior from Wellington died Friday after his vehicle went off the road and struck two trees on state Route 301 near Whitney Road.
“I know what Nate meant to us,” Griswold said as quiet sobs filled the gymnasium. “I cried myself to sleep last night.”
The aim was to bring the students to their most familiar place in the community to allow for collective mourning. There was no set agenda, but school officials hoped that one by one the students would share funny stories and memories of their friend.
The students showed in their actions that they needed the opposite. They just hugged each other and cried.
“This is so tough,” said Keystone Superintendent Franco Gallo. “We are giving them the opportunity and they just don’t know what to do.”
Outside the gymnasium, two purple banners spread out on tables gave students the outlet they needed. They expressed their grief onto the paper in beautiful tributes to Nathaniel, known by most of his friends as Nate.
“I’ll miss seeing you at lunch every day, Nate. Things are going to be tough,” signed Shelby with a heart.
“Loved playing football with you and seeing your smile every day. Rest easy, Nate,” said a message from Mitchell Coe.
“Nate, thank you for treating Marlie like a queen. Sorry God had to take such a beautiful soul is still what I’m asking myself. Rest easy,” signed Love Always, Olivia.
Losing a teammate and friend will be hard, Griswold said to the students.
“Don’t try to make sense of it,” he said. “It will never make sense. Life is precious and it is fragile. Our relationships and connections with others are the most important things in life.”
Nate was a part of the Wildcats’ football team. He played running back and strong safety. Nate, who also played baseball and ran track, was a popular, well-known student.
“He never got to see the fullness of what he could be,” said former coach Rob Clarico, who said he saw it every day. “I always believed in Nate.”
The junior left a lasting impression in that good way teachers love, said English teacher Gina Gibson.
“Maybe it will be the hair flip or the shy smile that formed when I talked to you, but you will always be remembered and in my heart,” Gibson wrote on the students’ banner.
Funeral arrangements are pending. In the meantime, Gallo said, the district will help support any student-led effort to memorialize Nate through fundraisers or events.
High School principal James Kohler said a crisis intervention team will be at the high school Monday to offer services to any student who needs it. He offered students his presence whenever they needed it.
“Some of you will cry. Some will be mad,” he said. “Some will be silent. People deal with grief in many ways. … But know you are not alone. We will get through this as a family.”