Scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes of a game for a comeback win is usually a joyous occasion.
But for Grade 12 Kildonan-East Reivers players Zach Winsor-McKinnon and Christian Proulx, they were just doing what they had to do to honour a friend.
The Reivers were playing with heavy hearts on Sept. 4 as recent graduate Christian O’Neail, a running back and linebacker with the team the previous two seasons, was killed at a house party in the 100 block of Nevens Bay in Transcona just four days beforehand. A 17-year-old male was charged with manslaughter in connection with the case.
After being held out of the end zone by the Portage Collegiate Institute Trojans for the better part of four quarters, Winsor-McKinnon and Proulx finally broke the plane twice at East Side Eagles Field to secure a 15-7 Winnipeg High School Football League win.
Proulx was close with O’Neail — their families were friends and they attended Sherwood Park Church of God (recently renamed Crosspoint Community Church) together. With his friend’s surname and No. 28 on a decal secured to his helmet, and the O’Neail family in the stands, Proulx intercepted a Michael Lavallee pass in the game’s final minutes to cement the victory.
"I couldn’t believe it. I was praying all game hoping I could make a play. When I had the ball in my hand, I just knew I could go," said Proulx, who also recorded five tackles to earn the Kas Vidruk Division’s defensive player of the week honours. "The first thing that popped into my head was making Christian proud and winning that game for everyone."
Winsor-McKinnon was also friends with O’Neail, and he hauled in a 45-yard touchdown from Zach Goring with approximately four minutes remaining for the Reivers’ first touchdown of the game.
"I was covered. I saw Zach threw the ball, and I just knew I had to make the catch. Once I caught the ball, there was just one guy to beat," Winsor-McKinnon said. "We played the game with our hearts out, because we knew (Christian) would do the same if it was any of us.
"Wearing his sticker on my helmet changes my game every time I think about it. I know I have him over me, and I’ve got to play the best I can, always."
Winsor-McKinnon and Proulx each played with O’Neail for three years. Proulx described him as someone who "could always make everyone smile, even in the worst situations" while Winsor-McKinnon recalled his work ethic.
"He’d never quit," he said.
Leading a squad playing in memory of a fallen teammate was a challenge for Reivers rookie head coach Jason Hawkins, making his debut in the position. He said O’Neail’s father, Vic, came to the locker room before the game and spoke to the players about the heart and dedication his son exemplified on and off the field.
Hawkins, who worked with O’Neail as the Reivers’ defensive co-ordinator, shared a striking example of how committed O’Neail became to the sport. After being cut from the team for the second consecutive year in his Grade 11 season, he gave the coaching staff a two-page handwritten letter detailing how he planned to improve.
"(Getting cut) didn’t sit well with him," Hawkins said. "He told us how much football meant to him, how he’d changed, and how he wanted to be part of (the team)."
When the coaches reversed their decision and allowed O’Neail onto the team, he stayed true to his word and eventually rose to the ranks of the team’s captains after he became more respectful and responsible.
"We saw he’d changed. He was committed, and oh my goodness, he just flourished," Hawkins said.
Vic said the letter was the idea of his wife, Deb, and marked a change in Christian, as he apologized for his bravado and individualistic attitude. It also gave Christian a sense he could help control his destiny.
Hawkins said other recent Reiver graduates came to the team’s Sept. 2 practice, the first since O’Neail’s death, as a show of solidarity.
Vic added his family approached the River East Transcona School Division to start a scholarship in Christian’s name. Initially, the money will help fund an education for one of his former teammates who lived with the family after experiencing some unrest in his home life. Those looking to donate to the Christian O’Neail Memorial Scholarship Fund can do so through the division or through Kildonan-East Collegiate.
"Christian gave him clothes to wear – his own clothes, which was a big deal for Christian because he was very protective of his clothes," Vic recalled. "Christian took care of him and basically treated him like a brother."
The Reivers fell 40-16 to Grant Park in their second game of the season.