COLUMBIA — Not a day has gone by since the death of Hartsville High nose tackle Ronald Rouse that coach Jeff Calabrese hasn’t thought about his big, good-natured lineman.
Calabrese knows Rouse will be on his players’ minds, too, when the Red Foxes play for a South Carolina football championship Saturday night.
Rouse collapsed twice against Crestwood on Oct. 5, was taken to a hospital and died later that night. An autopsy showed Rouse died of natural causes – sudden cardiac arrhythmia brought on by a congenital enlarged heart.
There have been memorials, remembrances and fundraisers to help Rouse’s family. Through it all, Rouse’s teammates kept winning and will try and finish an undefeated season against Union County at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Football,” Calabrese says, “has not been the most important thing on our brain.”
Still, it’s provided a focus and safe haven for the Hartsville players grieving for their teammate.
Calabrese didn’t discuss Rouse’s death publicly until this week, split between his own remorse and helping his players deal with the tragedy.
“People talk about our record and all that stuff, but since that time,” the coach says, “I hadn’t really thought about what our record is and I don’t think our players have thought much about what our record is.”
Hartsville’s season changed forever in the second quarter against Crestwood when Rouse signaled for time and collapsed on the field. Four doctors and two trainers rushed to his side, got him up and led him off the field. But Rouse collapsed again on the sidelines and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died.
Hartsville’s mayor asked town flags to fly at half-staff in Rouse’s honor. The school retired his No. 74 jersey and about 2,000 people attended a memorial service for the 18-year-old in the school gym.
Hartsville High principal Charlie Burry said Rouse was “a joy to know. He was a big, friendly guy who enjoyed school, playing ball, and life.”
Rouse had the standard pre-season sports physical required by the South Carolina High School League for a student to play. The physical does not call for require an electrocardiogram (EKG), or other heart test that might have uncovered Rouse’s condition. For families without health insurance, an EKG can cost $1,000.
The Darlington School District, which includes Hartsville High, does not require more extensive testing, nor does it plan to change its policy following Rouse’s death.
District spokesman Audrey Childers says the district has a high poverty rate – about 82 percent of those attending district schools qualify for free or reduced cost meals – and additional testing could be a hardship on many families.
Childers says area doctors and clinics provide sports physicals for reasonable fees, sometimes as low as $25. Childers says a parent or guardian must sign off on the exam and more tests are recommended for those patients with warning signs of more serious conditions.
Calabrese said Rouse’s family has remained connected to the team, as Rouse’s father pumped his fist in celebration a week ago when the Red Foxes advanced to the state title game.
Childers said she knows of no lawsuits filed against the school or the district in connection with Rouse’s death.
Calbrese expects the team’s fans to display remembrances of Rouse on Saturday. The players’ helmets will carry a sticker of Rouse’s No. 74 and cheerleaders have worn T-shirts and carried a flag commemorating the lineman.
Rouse’s spirit remains with his teammates. “Ronald was always a goofball,” said senior running back Trey Rogers. “He always kept your spirits up. Always kept you confident you could come out on top if you played hard and played all out.”
Calabrese smiles when thinking about Rouse, a 6-foot-3, 330-pounder. “We argued all the time about how much he weighed, but it was a lot,” the coach said.
His players were a close bunch entering 2012 after a 9-3 record last season. They have pulled tighter since losing Rouse, Calabrese said.
“We’re just a big old family doing the best we can each and every day,” he said. “That’s how we’re here.”