At the start of last week, Levi Stillman came home like any other day after practice at Estancia High.
Stillman was preparing for his biggest football game of his life, the biggest football game the city of Costa Mesa has ever held. In four days, rivals Estancia and Costa Mesa would play for a league title in the regular-season finale for the first time.
The Battle for the Bell meant more than city bragging rights.
After the first day of practice, Stillman felt ready. Nothing could prepare him for the news he received from his mother Stacy that night at home.
Monday night is when Stillman said he found out his uncle Michael passed away from liver complications.
"My mom just came in and was like, 'Do you remember he called you Buster Brown?'" said Stillman, remembering how his uncle always thought he resembled the comic strip character with the pageboy haircut. "Then she told me [he died]."
Stillman broke down. A football game was four days away and Stillman never thought about missing it.
Getting through each day wasn't easy.
"Monday was hard. Tuesday was hard," said Stillman, as each day passed. "I wanted to play for him. Just have to play for him."
Stillman played and put on quite the performance under the lights at Jim Scott Stadium.
The skinniest player on the field caught almost everything thrown his way. The 135-pound wide receiver went into the game with just four receptions. He matched that total against Costa Mesa.
The biggest grabs turned out to be the two touchdown passes he caught from quarterback Brad Wilson. The scores were the difference in the Eagles beating Costa Mesa, 28-14, to cap an undefeated Orange Coast League title.
As his teammates celebrated their second straight league crown, Stillman let it all out. His face said it all. Tears ran down his cheeks.
"I couldn't really hold it in," said Stillman, who stayed composed during the game. "When you step on the football field, everything else kind of goes away. It is kind of an escape of reality."
Someone called Stillman the man of the hour.
In the next hours, all Stillman thought about was the man he lost, his uncle.
When he got home late that night, Stillman hugged his mom.
"She said I played great and Uncle Michael would be proud," Stillman said. "It meant a lot."
Stillman paid his final respects to his uncle on Wednesday. He missed practice to attend his uncle's funeral.
Coach Mike Bargas understood why.
"He said, 'Family comes first,'" Stillman said Bargas told him. "It felt good [to hear that]. He said he'd keep a spot warm for me [as a starter]."
Make that two spots. Stillman is a two-way starter for the Eagles and the junior has emerged as one of the team's standout players.
One of the reasons he has played well at cornerback is because his father Robert played Stillman at quarterback in Pop Warner. Stillman said he never really liked the position, but he can thank his father for being able to read quarterbacks in high school.
This year, Stillman has four interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Before last week, he had as many interceptions as catches as a receiver.
The two favorite things Stillman likes to do on the field are catch passes and break up passes.
Stillman is doing both late in the season. Estancia will need him to continue his stellar play if the program expects to win its first CIF Southern Section playoff game in 31 years.
The Eagles (8-2) play host to Magnolia (4-6) in a Southern Division first-round game on Friday at 7 p.m.
"Hopefully we can make history going past first round," Stillman said. "Hopefully we can just keep it going."
Stillman wants to keep playing for his uncle.
Born: June 20, 1995
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Weight: 135 pounds
Position: Wide receiver and cornerback
Coach: Mike Bargas
Favorite food: Fettuccine Alfredo
Favorite movie: "Step Brothers"
Favorite athletic moment: "Beating Mesa and getting athlete of the week."
Week in review: Stillman caught four passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Eagles beat rival Costa Mesa, 28-14, and claim their second straight undefeated Orange Coast League and Battle for the Bell titles.