ARVADA - He was a good kid, always smiling.
He loved hunting, football, wrestling and especially his family.
He was a twin. A brother. A son.
These are just some of the words used to describe 17-year-old Josh Cortez, a junior defensive end for Poudre High School.
On Thursday night, Cortez and his mother Kelly were on their way back from a team potluck when they were killed in a car accident.
Poudre was set to make their first appearance in the final 16 since 2008 the following night, but the sudden and unexpected loss put a question mark on the team’s 5A first-round playoff game with Pomona High School.
The team met again on Friday morning to discuss the possibility of postponing the game but it didn’t take long to reach a conclusion. Deep down, they knew what Josh would want.
“They know Josh is still with them here in spirit,” said Poudre assistant principle Kelby Benedict. “They really wanted to play for him tonight and the coaches and staff really supported that.”
And on Friday night, Josh’s presence was felt everywhere.
On every Poudre football helmet was a No. 66 decal, Josh’s number. Harlan Archuleta, one of Josh’s teammates and closest friends, wore his number in his memory.
As the Poudre players trickled out of the tunnels to warm-up, Pomona’s players looked on. These weren’t the stares of a team sizing up their opponents, but the thoughtful glances of a team showing their respect. Every now and then, the two rivals would exchange a friendly head nod, as if they were silently expressing their condolences to a guy they didn’t even know by name.
The Pomona student body was notified of the accident in Friday’s morning announcements.
“Our first initial response is we need to do something,” said Katelyn Madden, a junior cheerleader at Pomona. “And so we all just started pitching in right away.”
They made a banner with the phrase “Poudre Strong”, written bold and bright. One handmade card quickly became three as more and more people filled the pages with their signatures and well wishes.
“Pomona is a community where we always want to help others,” Madden explained. “We are playing tonight, going into the playoffs. It’s hard but we want to make sure they know that they have our support win or lose.”
Madden’s parents, who were also touched by the situation, put together collection buckets to raise money for the Cortez family. Volunteers stood at the front gates of the North Area Athletic Complex to take donations before kickoff. Neil Warner, a veteran and parent of a Pomona football player, did not hesitate to pull out his wallet.
“I didn’t have a lot. I would have put whatever I had,” Warner explained. “They may be on the other side of the state but we’re all one community. There’s nothing we won’t do for each other in times of need.”
In an hours’ time, the buckets were overflowing. At halftime, Pomona Athletic Director Mike Santarelli delivered more than $1500 to Benedict.
“There are no words,” said a visibly moved Benedict. “It was very powerful.”
On the field, the Pomona football players continued to show the support. On the walk to the coin toss, the Panthers captains carried a special No. 66 Pomona jersey, the name “Cortez” printed on the back. Usually captains shake hands or give an occasional tap on the helmet. On Friday night, they embraced.
After a moment of silence, the two teams gave it their all and for the most part, it felt like any other high school football game. But in reality, it was far from it.
Pomona went on to win, 68-27, but the post-game celebrations were all but absent. As the clock hit zero, both teams met at centerfield.
White and blue jerseys hugging red and black jerseys.
Opposing coaches with their arms thrown over the other coaches shoulder.
Some people cried silently during a post-game prayer while others looked up to the sky.
This one was for Josh.
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