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It’s a piece of bright red wool and leather, embroidered with yellow thread — an old letter jacket from the mid-1980s.
“This morning, my step mother, she actually gave me my dad’s letterman jacket and that brought a few tears to my eyes because I wish he could’ve been here,” said Goochland senior Mason Engel after the Bulldogs’ state championship victory over Essex in Salem December 8. “But I know he was sitting here watching me every single game.”
The jacket’s appearance had a similar effect on Goochland coach Joe Fowler.
“I knew when he walked up wearing his dad’s letter jacket that we were going to win,” Fowler said. “I started crying outside the locker room and I knew we were going to win.”
Engel’s father, Chuck Engel, died in a mud-bogging accident back in July, when he crashed into pond and the vehicle overturned. Mason was there and was one of several people trying to pull his father from the wreck. Officials tried to revive Chuck Engel but couldn’t before he could be airlifted from the scene.
The father who’d coached many of Engel’s current teammates during youth football in the Goochland Youth Association was quite suddenly ripped away from his family.
“Everybody misses my dad, I miss him, my mom misses him, everybody does,” Engel said. “But this season brought us all together.”
That season was a magical one. Engel, a senior safety and running back who earned All-Region B and All-James River honors for his work on defense, captained the 13-2 squad that won a Division 2 title and atoned for a 2011 loss in the final to Gretna. Like most of the Bulldogs, that Gretna loss drove him through another laborious offseason in a community that lives and breathes football season.
“I was heartbroken,” Engel said of the 2011 defeat. “It literally felt like I had an empty spot in my body. Coming back this year has completely washed it all away and it’s the best feeling ever.”
That loss drove him even in the days immediately after his father’s death — within a week after the funeral, Mason made his way to Goochland’s first 7-on-7 event of the summer. Even though everyone involved surely would’ve understood if he’d been absent.
“The week my father passed away, the next week was our first week of 7-on-7 and I knew that I had to be there,” Engel said. “I wasn’t going to miss that.”
That’s a testament to the family atmosphere that dominates Goochland football. The Bulldogs are like many successful one-school county programs, where players have grown up playing together and have fostered a bond that extends well beyond the field. In Goochland they’ve played GYA football, then moved on together to junior varsity and eventually joined a varsity team they’ve aspired to be a part of for years. Engel’s class finished the last two years with a 27-3 record, packing essentially three seasons into just two years. Lining up with his brothers on the team has been most of the support that Engel needed as he dealt with his father’s death.
“They don’t talk about it because there’s no need,” Engel said. “But they’re right there for me any time I need them.”
Just like he’s always been for them. It’s why Engel’s coach felt the same emotion he did about a jacket — there’s a connection there that can’t be forced, it can only be forged.
And it’s a big reason why the Bulldogs were standing in Salem outside the locker room celebrating a title just months after Engel suffered such a striking loss. There are likely days of grief ahead for Engel — a father’s loss is often felt for a lifetime — but for a moment he got to soak in success, excitement and warmth.
“It’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever experienced,” Engel said.
With the resiliency he’s shown, there’ll likely be many more like it in his future.