Kearns football team playing to remember fallen, injured teammates

Local News

The football team at Kearns High School carries to significant logos on the backs of their helmets this season, each in remembrance of their teammates. (Photo courtesy of Greg James/ City Journals)

By Greg James |

As the Cougars run onto the field for football games this season, two major events have taught them how this game can be taken from them in an instant, and they should try to enjoy each moment they have together.

Kearns High School was shocked by two devastating experiences by former players earlier this year. In March then-senior Audrick Afatasi was seriously injured in a trampoline accident. Then in July, Neko Noah Jardine was shot and killed trying to help break up a fight.

“One thing our guys have learned is how to deal with adversity,” Kearns head coach Matt Rickards said. “That is the backbone of what we teach, how to react when things happen in life. Unfortunately, we have had two major events that have happened that are outside of our control. It also lets them know that life is precious. We have learned to win the day. It sounds cliché.”

Police say Jardine was attending a party at 5625 West 4360 South when two cars pulled up and called for those inside to come out. Investigators believe the people in the cars were involved in an ongoing dispute with someone who lived in the house. Words were exchanged between the two groups, and violence escalated. Two others were injured in the incident. To date no arrests have been made.

In Jardine’s senior season, he caught 10 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns.

“It is hard to lose a brother like that,” senior Austin Perry said. “He was like a brother to us. Our first game and winning like that was awesome for me.”

In Kearns’ first home game, officials retired No. 44 in honor of Jardine. The Cougars then defeated Box Elder 34-30.

“Life is short; be smart about the places you put yourself in,” a family friend and assistant coach Troy Luckart said. “He was not doing anything wrong but was in a bad place. He lived with me for a little while. At my house, he had five brothers. Ultimately, be careful. I believe Kearns is a family. He touched the lives of many kids.”

Afatsi was preparing for his own graduation at the time of his trampoline accident. 

“I think the bond has grown with my team,” Afatsi said as he rolled his wheelchair across the football field. “Big groups of them would come to visit me and that helped me not be depressed and gave me high hopes.”

Afatasi currently rehabs his injuries every day at a center in Murray and plans to take a year off from further education plans to focus on his healing.

“You never know what can transpire,” Richards said. “We are focused on each week. We have focused on each game. We are getting better but not quite where we need to be as a team.” 

The Cougars started their 2019 campaign with four victories. The fourth win came against cross-town rival Taylorsville, 54-7. The Cougars took control of the game early, leading 33-7 at halftime. Senior Dakota Lynde threw for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the victory. Sophomore Naki Leha carried the ball 13 times for 140 yards and three touchdowns.

“We have numerous guys that could play at the next level,” Richards said. “Some have offers already. In our season, we have done well at establishing the run game and being efficient in the passing game. I think defensively we need to get better at tackling. It is funny Austin Perry has had four or five interceptions, and all but one has been called back because of a penalty. It was good to see him finally get one.”

Perry intercepted a ball in the third quarter against Taylorsville and nearly returned it for a touchdown. 

Kearns has been ranked as high as eighth in the state by the Deseret News. The Utah High School Activities Association realigned its regions beginning this fall. Kearns is competing in Region 2 against Cyprus, Granger, Hunter, Taylorsville and West Jordan. 

This year’s realignment also initiates a new ratings index to seed all teams into the state playoffs following the regular season. The state tournament is scheduled to begin Oct 25. 

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