A little more than a year ago, the Avengers’ Al Lucas died as a result of a spinal cord injury suffered in an Arena Football League game against the New York Dragons at Staples Center.
Nothing has been the same since, for his family or the team.
“We’ve tried to make it into a positive thing, rather than a negative thing, but you never get over losing a kid because, really, they’re supposed to be seeing about your final rights,” said David Lucas, Al’s father. “Not you, seeing about theirs.”
Lucas was an agile 6-foot-1, 300-pound man beloved by everyone who knew him. A standout player at Northeast High in Macon, Ga., and Troy University in Troy, Ala., Lucas played two seasons in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers before joining the AFL in 2003.
His family still has a difficult time believing he’s gone. They never thought he’d suffer a life-ending injury in a game he dominated and enjoyed so much.
“I see Al in my sleep all of the time,” his wife, De’Shonda, said recently from her home in Georgia. “When he first died, his presence was in my dreams every night and then it stopped for a while. But lately, he’s back stronger than ever. Subconsciously, he’s still here to me.”
Even Lucas’ 3-year-old daughter, Mariah, has had her moments.
“Just the other night, she woke up and told me that she saw Daddy in her eyes when she was asleep,” De’Shonda Lucas said. “I told her, ‘Yes, that was your father,’ watching over her and that he’s still with her.... All of this stuff doesn’t make me sad. It’s weird, but I just embrace it.”
Life without Lucas has been difficult for the Avengers. Ranked among the league’s top teams before the season, they have struggled and have one of the league’s worst records at 4-11.
“We definitely miss him,” said the Avengers’ Silas Demary, a close friend of the Lucas family. “We miss his leadership. We miss his play on the line. We miss his jokes. We miss him as a person.”
Lucas was a force on the field. As a college senior, he won the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in Division I-AA. After his time in the NFL, Lucas was named to the AFL all-rookie team in 2003 with the Tampa Bay Force.
With the Avengers, he was a leader on offense and defense. He led the team’s linemen with 18.5 tackles in 2004 and was considered one of the best pass protectors in the league.
But everything changed April 10, 2005, when Lucas collapsed after tackling the Dragons’ Corey Johnson during a kickoff return early in the first quarter. Lucas was pronounced dead at California Hospital Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles after attempts to revive him at the arena and hospital failed. His death was ruled an accident, the result of upper spinal cord injury and blunt force trauma.
The Avengers dedicated the rest of the season to him, a season that turned out to be the best in franchise history. With Demary the spearhead -- he was named the AFL’s defensive player and lineman of the year -- the Avengers won five of their last six games and their first Western Division championship with a 10-6 record.
This year, however, the Avengers rarely talk about Lucas. The team honored him when his number, 76, was retired before a game against the Chicago Rush on Feb. 18, but since then, memories of Lucas have been private.
“We have a lot of new people this year, and I don’t think most of them know the gist of it because we haven’t really talked about it as a team,” linebacker-running back Lonnie Ford said.
“Playing for Al was a theme that we had last year and we rode that. We were able to switch something bad and get strength from it.... This year, we tried to come in with a fresh start.”
Coach Ed Hodgkiss said the Avengers tried to get used to being a team without Lucas, something, he acknowledges, they have struggled with.
“He was a leader, not so much vocally but by his actions, and we miss that a ton,” Hodgkiss said. “He was one of the best two-way players in the game ... and it wasn’t just his abilities.
“There’s a difference between just showing up and putting in work. Al always came to work.”
De’Shonda Lucas said the Avengers and Al’s family would always be connected.
“I lost a husband,” she said. “Al’s parents lost a son. His daughter lost a father, and the Avengers lost a teammate. It’s something not easy to get over. Everyone basically had to literally start over and build again.”
The Lucas family started an Al Lucas Memorial Scholarship Fund that has been a huge success. Late last month, the Lucas family held a dinner to honor six high school student-athletes, who received college scholarships. Two of the awards went to students from Northeast High School, Al’s alma mater
A key contributor to the fund has been Avenger owner Casey Wasserman, whose nonprofit organization contributed $150,000 last year. But it hasn’t been only the Lucas family and the Avengers perpetuating Al Lucas’ memory.
The Little League field in East Macon Park where Lucas played baseball was renamed Albert James Lucas “Big Luke” Memorial Field this year, and the Tampa Bay Storm created a Mariah Lucas Scholarship Fund, to benefit his daughter and wife.
The Macon Telegraph web page dedicated to Lucas has more than 1,000 entries from people all over the world, and the AFL has renamed its Hero Award the Al Lucas Award, given each year to the player for outstanding play and community service.
“I talk with Al’s mother [Elaine Lucas] every day and we both make it a point by trying to keep busy,” De’Shonda said.
“I just want to thank so many people who have remembered Al. That has really helped the family.”
Added David Lucas: “You never get over it, but as time goes on it gets a little better. Al was doing something he loved and that’s playing football. It’s tragic, but that’s life.”
Life that goes on without Al Lucas for his family and the Avengers.