Bogalusa football players strive to be ‘light of the city’ after shooting at homecoming game

Published: May. 22, 2023 at 11:05 PM CDT
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BOGALUSA, La. (WVUE) - The excitement of Bogalusa High’s homecoming game, filled with unforgettable moments for seniors, was abruptly shattered when a gunfight erupted just yards outside the stadium gates.

“Big lights, big crowd, we were having fun. That game there was epic,” said Bogalusa junior Ayden Sampson.

“I was in the end zone when I first heard it. I looked up, we all looked up, we didn’t see anything, we looked up again,” said Bogalusa junior Ashton Levi.

According to police, three individuals engaged in a shootout, exchanging nearly 20 rounds on Oct. 14, 2022.

“We thought it was fireworks because we had just scored. We didn’t think anything of it,” said Sampson.

“When I saw people start running, I started running. I was just completely shocked,” said Bogalusa sophomore Dyron Jackson.

The chaotic gunfire sent players and fans scrambling for safety, and resulted in the death of 15-year-old Jerry Smith, whom authorities identified as one of the shooters.

Boy, 15, fatally shot outside stadium at Bogalusa High’s homecoming football game, police say

“It’s heartbreaking. It could’ve been one of my friends, you know?” said Jackson.

In the wake of the harrowing incident, officials made the swift decision to halt the game, leaving four minutes remaining on the scoreboard. The team, stunned and feeling the weight of defeat, remained determined to carry on with their season.

“I think the community rallies around the boys. They’re very supportive. It was the atmosphere of ‘We’re on the brink of something,’” said Bogalusa head coach Cyril Crutchfield.

But their upcoming opponent -- Albany High -- expressed concern about the safety of playing at Bogalusa’s stadium, ultimately leading them to forfeit the scheduled game.

“I’m more worried about our children. Homefield advantage, last time being as a senior on our football field,” said Superintendent Lisa Tanner.

The decision was a crushing blow for the players, adding to the emotional toll already inflicted by the shooting.

“We’re playing hard on the field,” Jackson said. “Blood, sweat, and tears. Playing the game we love, and something like that happens. It ruins ... it takes the shine off of us, the positive stuff we have in Bogalusa. Like the stuff we got going on, the positive for the city, it gets overshadowed by all the negatives. That hurt.”

Despite holding the No. 2 seed in the state playoffs, the players found it difficult to shake off the pain and trauma caused by the shooting. Their postseason journey was sadly cut short as they lost their first playoff game.

“It definitely had an effect on the rest of the season,” Crutchfield said. “All my boys, we had nothing to do with it. They had to get the brunt of the negativity. We lost a home game. We had to take a forfeit. A team didn’t want to play.”

Next, coaches faced the daunting task of ensuring the safety and engagement of their players throughout a prolonged offseason.

The year 2022 had already brought eight homicides in Bogalusa, according to police.

“Idle mind is the devil’s workshop. We try to bring them in, even if we’re not doing anything. It’s about a family, it’s about a culture,” Crutchfield said.

“I really just stay at home and surround myself with people that are good with sports. Focus on their life and try to thrive and succeed,” said Jackson.

“I just prefer to stay at home. I don’t want to get caught up in nothing that is going outside in the world,” said Bogalusa junior Micheal Burton.

Recently elected Mayor Tyrin Truong, along with law enforcement, authorized another approach to protect the Bogalusa teens.

“We now have a youth curfew in place,” Truong said. “Meaning that, unless you’re going to work, unless you’re participating in a church or school activity, you have to be inside for a certain time.”

After six long months without football, Bogalusa High finally returned to the field for spring practice.

“The whole football team ... it feels like home,” Sampson said. “What’s going on outside of this doesn’t really affect us when we step inside this field house. It feels good, knowing that I’m comfortable around people that I can trust, family.”

“It’s tunnel vision. It’s like I’m free. I’m free from all the other stuff. I got 12 minutes, a quarter to play, and do what I love the most,” said Levi.

Not all of Bogalusa’s troubles can be solved on a football field. But the Lumberjacks can bond this city in a time of despair.

“It’s huge,” Truong said. “The stadium is packed out. The small town comes together. It’s one of the last things that really brings us all together these days. Everybody loves football. Besides that, this group of guys, they’re extraordinary. They have high GPAs, well-respected in the community.”

While the scars of the tragedy might linger, the return of football in Bogalusa signifies the community’s unwavering spirit.

“Hopefully we can continue winning. That will help people in the community rally, get more support,” said Crutchfield.

“The positive stuff we do is going to overshadow all the negative stuff. We’re going to come out and be the light of this city,” said Jackson.

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