JEFF JA­COBS

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - Jeff.ja­cobs@hearst­medi­act.com; @jef­f­ja­cobs123

STRAT­FORD — When they were sopho­mores at Bun­nell High, coach Rich Diedrich­sen would in­sert them all into the game at the same time. He called them The Force.

Two years later, in the au­tumn of 1991, they would have an­other name.

“We called our­selves the Se­nior Seven,” Ryan Jock­ers said. “Jeff Ra­madanovic, Bob Chagnon, Stew Diaz … we were a band of broth­ers. Strat­ford was a foot­ball town and we had a lot of firsts in soc­cer.”

There was a league ti­tle. There was the first state tour­na­ment vic­tory, Diaz as­sist­ing on the game’s only goal against North Haven. Jock­ers scored it. They had been on the town’s first travel team. Diaz was all-league. Jock­ers was all-state.

Dur­ing their se­nior year, new turf was be­ing placed on the Bun­nell pitch. The Bull­dogs would play their games at Pen­ders Field at Strat­ford High. Nearly three decades later this is where Jock­ers serves as the first-year Strat­ford boys head coach and, yes, where Diaz as­sists him.

“When the sea­son started we were kick­ing it around, mod­el­ing touch drills with the kids,” Jock­ers said. “Af­ter all those years, on this field, it was so much fun.”

“Broth­ers,” Diaz said.

Four knee surg­eries have cur­tailed Diaz, but this was never go­ing to be a story about one man’s knee. It is about two men’s hearts. It is about the un­speak­able tragedy they would share while they were in col­lege and a game that would bring them back to­gether.

Novem­ber 5, 1993, a Fri­day, was a rainy one on the Con­necti­cut shore­line. Con­di­tions were slick. Au­tumn leaves had fallen. Erin Jock­ers and Debi Diaz were rid­ing in a car driven by Joseph Yuhas. They were re­turn­ing from rent­ing a movie, Jock­ers re­mem­bers. They were re­turn­ing from try­ing on dresses the night be­fore the Ju­nior Ring Dance at Bun­nell, Diaz re­mem­bers. Maybe it was both.

News re­ports said it was 8:15 p.m. when Yuhas, driv­ing north on Nichols Av­enue, lost con­trol of his car in the rain, crossed the cen­ter line and struck a south­bound ve­hi­cle They weren’t a mile from our house,” Jock­ers said.

Jock­ers was about 75 miles away at UConn that night. He was pledg­ing a fra­ter­nity, went to a lead­er­ship con­fer­ence the next morn­ing and didn’t get back to his dorm room un­til mid-af­ter­noon. This was be­fore cell­phones. There was a string of mes­sages from his dad.

“He spoke in a voice I’d never heard him use be­fore, stat­ing the facts,” Jock­ers said.

Ra­madanovic was at­tend­ing As­sump­tion in Worces­ter. Chagnon was at Uni­ver­sity of Hart­ford. They went to Storrs and brought Jock­ers home. He vis­ited Erin that Satur­day night at Bridge­port Hos­pi­tal. She was in a coma. The next morn­ing, doc­tors met with the fam­ily. A de­ci­sion was made to take her off life sup­port.

It was such a blur Jock­ers does not re­mem­ber see­ing Diaz that week­end. Debi also was in crit­i­cal con­di­tion at Bridge­port Hos­pi­tal’s ICU. Stew, who was play­ing soc­cer at Stone­hill Col­lege, was ac­tu­ally home that week­end, un­usual for a soc­cer au­tumn.

“I’m thank­ful I was right there af­ter the call to sup­port my fam­ily,” Diaz said.

Th­ese broth­ers each had one bi­o­log­i­cal sib­ling.

“At 19, here I was say­ing my fi­nal words to my sis­ter,” Jock­ers said softly. “She was 16.”

Erin Jock­ers died Nov. 7, 1993. Af­ter the fu­neral, af­ter the mourn­ing, he re­turned to UConn.

“I tried to deal with it, tried to es­cape from it at the same time,” Jock­ers said. “And then Debi died in De­cem­ber and we went through it all over again.”

Dur­ing that won­der­ful se­nior year for Ryan and Stew on the Pen­ders pitch, Erin, only a fresh­man, had been the team man­ager for the boys team. Erin and Debi loved the game just like their both­ers and they would play on Bun­nell’s first girls soc­cer team.

“I grew up with a great fam­ily and child­hood,” Jock­ers said. “I went from hav­ing a whole fam­ily to one that wasn’t. Sud­denly, I was deal­ing with a loss that I was un­pre­pared for and see­ing my par­ents go through it. My par­ents are amaz­ing, strong and won­der­ful peo­ple. It forced me to grow up. It was dif­fi­cult. I spent a lot of col­lege try­ing to fig­ure out big­ger ques­tions we have about life.”

Stew left Stone­hill and played at Vir­ginia

Tech with his cousin. He had a chance to play a bit in Scot­land. As the years rolled on, the two didn’t see a lot of each other. From a Colom­bian fam­ily, Diaz would study in­dige­nous cul­tures in South Amer­ica. An an­thro­pol­o­gist, he re­turned to the States nearly a decade ago. He has taught most of­ten at prep schools and did some coach­ing.

“Debi’s death started a process for me where I had a lot of ques­tions,” Diaz said. “It mo­ti­vated me for to go to South Amer­ica and un­der­stand my roots, to know my ori­gins.”

Dur­ing grad­u­ate school, Diaz said he came across a man study­ing ca­reer moves and deal­ing with pro­found change. Loss, self-blame, exploration, that third stage, Diaz said, was “my twen­ties.”

“It can be the most con­fus­ing, but ul­ti­mately the most re­ward­ing be­cause it takes you to the fi­nal stage of com­mit­ment,” Diaz said. “The process has led me to a com­mit­ment to teach, coach­ing, work­ing with in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.”

Since 1996, the Ster­ling House ath­letic pro­gram in Strat­ford has hon­ored both girls with an­nual awards in their honor. There was a ban­quet last March.

“I see Stew there,” Jock­ers said. “I was so sur­prised and happy. He seemed to be all over the place. For years our meet­ings were sparse. But when we saw each other, it was some­thing deep be­tween us.

“He told me he was in New York, do­ing some teach­ing and coach­ing. I told him how I had been an as­sis­tant coach at Bun­nell.”

Jock­ers didn’t get the open head coach­ing job he wanted at Bun­nell this year. He did get the Strat­ford job. It was early Au­gust, only a few weeks be­fore try­outs and Jock­ers still hadn’t set­tled on an as­sis­tant. The fam­ily had spent most of the sum­mer in Old Say­brook. They were home a few days in Au­gust. Jock­ers was play­ing his gui­tar, re­lax­ing on a rainy day when his wife Keri and their two chil­dren de­cided to go to the Strat­ford li­brary.

When Keri re­turned she told him they’d seen Stew.

“Stew’s in town?” said Jock­ers, a teacher at He­len Keller Mid­dle School in Eas­ton. “I im­me­di­ately texted him: Will you be my as­sis­tant? He said, ‘My heart tells me to do this, but I’ve got to fig­ure out some things.’”

Blend­ing Span­ish and an­thro­pol­ogy wher­ever he taught, Diaz, has worked to de­velop sis­ter schools. Do­na­tion drives for cloth­ing, school sup­plies are brought to north­ern Colom­bia.

Diaz was able got a job teach­ing at the AL­PHA pro­gram in Strat­ford. Yes, he would coach. The two, bonded by tragedy, would find them­selves back to­gether. Rooted in the soc­cer up­bring­ing, they view the game in the same ways. As teach­ers, the have sim­i­lar tem­per­a­ments.

“This is a broth­erly bound,” Diaz said. “The good and the bad we’ve been through, it has en­hanced our re­la­tion­ship. We both have a deep faith. And I just get this sense we are do­ing what our sis­ters would want us to do.”

“We all were such good friends in high school,” Jock­ers said. “Then we weren’t re­ally part of each other’s lives for a long time, even though we were deeply con­nected. To come back to­gether, not only in soc­cer, but on a field where we had spe­cial mo­ments. This is won­der­ful.”

Arnold Gold / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Strat­ford High School as­sis­tant coach Stew Diaz (left) and head coach Ryan Jock­ers are pho­tographed dur­ing soc­cer prac­tice in Strat­ford on Fri­day.

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