Football playoff game loses its charm when tragedy strikes

It was “Friday Night Lights” in Corona, high school football center stage.

The joy of anticipation bubbled over. Teenage players couldn’t wait. Parents and friends were in the stands. The communities that embrace Corona Santiago High and Upland High were bundled up and full-throated.

This was a quarterfinal game in the Southern Section Inland Division playoffs. Winning meant advancing to another game, more joyful anticipation, more pats on the back and maybe even longer looks from college scouts.

There are many characterizations of Americana. This was one of them.

Each team had a star.

For Santiago, it was junior quarterback Blake Barnett. He is 6 feet 4 and 195 pounds and has scholarship interest from at least seven major universities.


For Upland, remarkably, it was freshman Nathan Tilford, 6-2 and 195 pounds. Like Barnett, his stardom was measured by college offers. When he was still in eighth grade, Tilford was offered scholarships to USC and Arizona State, even though his participation would be four years away. There is a picture of Tilford and former USC coach Lane Kiffin together. Both are smiling and giving a V sign for victory.

There were other good players, of course, some good enough to play on a college level. But the majority were teenage boys, enjoying the competition and camaraderie and making their parents proud.

It is hard to determine where Jordan Walker fit in. He was a junior, a starting linebacker for Santiago. At 6 feet and 195 pounds, he was a solidly built player who had his moment of fame in a recent game, when he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Jeff Steinberg, Santiago’s coach, said, “Jordan is just one of those kids you love to have around. He walks into a room, you smile.”

The combination of a light drizzle and an FS West telecast of the game may have kept the crowd down a bit. Reporter Eric-Paul Johnson of the Riverside Press-Enterprise, who has covered high school football in this Inland Valley area since 2000, estimated the attendance at about 3,000.

Depending on your perspective, much was at stake, including athletic pride. Upland had barely beaten Santiago last season, and had squeaked out a 43-42 victory in September by matching Santiago’s overtime touchdown and making a two-point conversion to win.

When Friday night’s game began, the TV equipment dominated the Santiago sideline and reporter Johnson headed to the Upland side for a better view.

With just over three minutes gone in the first quarter, ballcarrier Tilford hurdled a pile of players and landed on Walker, who was braced to make the tackle. Soon, there was a hush. Walker wasn’t getting up, wasn’t moving.

“His arms were kind of splayed at his side and they weren’t moving, kind of like a snow angel,” Johnson said.

“I couldn’t tell if he got his head down or if it was up when they hit. I still don’t know.”

It became a scene played out all too often on football fields. Both teams knelt on the field. The stands were hushed. The game was delayed for 15 to 20 minutes while medical personnel did their job.

Eventually, Walker, who had stepped on the field with the energy, vitality and pride of youth, left on a stretcher and in an ambulance.

The game went on because football, on any level, has never seemed to find, or accept, an alternative. It lives the cliche that the show must go on.

Early in the fourth quarter, an announcement over the public-address system said that Walker was in a hospital and had feeling in his limbs. There was a cheer.

“Somebody apparently had the wrong information,” Johnson said Monday.

Sunday, Steinberg reported with more accuracy.

“He has no feeling in his arms or legs,” the coach said. “The C-4 and C-5 were crushed. But he is breathing on his own and the good news is that his spinal cord was not severed.”

Steinberg said that Walker had surgery and that time would tell how much the swelling subsided and what could be done after that. He also said he once had a player where he previously coached suffer what appeared to be a similar injury to Walker’s and that that young man is walking around today.

Steinberg also called the circumstances of the play “a one-in-a-million thing.”

Santiago scored a touchdown with about three minutes left to cut Upland’s lead to 30-29. Then Santiago missed the extra-point try, Upland ran out the clock, and a bitterly tragic night for Corona Santiago ended in further surreal sadness.

In the aftermath, normalcy mixed with sadness. Life’s show went on.

By the next day, Santiago’s star quarterback, Barnett, had traveled to see one of his suitors, Notre Dame, beat Brigham Young at South Bend, Ind. While there, he announced his commitment to play for the Irish, starting in 2015. During his trip, he sent a Twitter message, asking for prayers for teammate Walker.

Also the next day, parents and friends gathered at the football field where Walker had been injured and formed a prayer circle around the 50-yard-line school logo.

Monday, Walker’s parents, Curtis and Allison Walker, issued a statement through Loma Linda University Medical Center that said, in part: “We understand that with any sport, there is the risk of injury. We do not blame or have any hard feelings toward the football players and coaches of Upland and Santiago High Schools.

“We appreciate the love and support Jordan continues to receive from his teammates and coaches.”