Litchfield Dragons Football: 'We've been all praying more'
Litchfield football team deals with the death of teammate Dylan Falling, who died last summer in a car accident
LITCHFIELD — At both the practice field and the school’s football stadium, Dylan Falling’s presence is everywhere.
There are plenty of tributes from the players along the sideline and on their equipment. Supporters of the team have T-shirts with “Do right by 28” written on the back.
All of it is a show of respect for Falling, who died on June 8, three days after suffering critical injuries in a motor vehicle crash on the intersection of Minnesota Highway 24 and 675th Avenue.
Going into his junior year, Falling, 16, was a three-sport athlete at Litchfield. He played running back and linebacker on the football team, stopped pucks as a goaltender in hockey and also ran in track and field.
“I remember his energy; he made everybody smile,” said junior Logan King. “He was just so fun to be around.”
Added fellow junior Ryan Schutz, “The one thing I would point out is his smile. No matter what, his smile, as soon as it came, everyone in the room could feel the vibe and energy coming off of him. He made everyone around him feel like they should be there.”
While sharing grief over losing a teammate, the Dragons’ football team has become stronger. Litchfield is off to a 2-0 start heading into Friday’s East Central South District home game against Holy Family Catholic.
“This year, we’re more of one team because Dylan was involved with everyone in all three grades (sophomores, juniors and seniors,” said junior Wyatt Larson. “Everyone knew him and he touched everyone in the community and everyone knows how he impacted everyone.
“It has really brought us together and we play really well together now.”
‘It’s never easy’
Litchfield head football coach Jim Jackman had some friends over to celebrate as his daughter was getting ready to go to boot camp when he heard about Falling’s accident.
“We weren’t sure who it was, we just heard it was a couple of high school boys,” Jackman said. “Then we heard it was (Danny) Estrada and Dylan. We were uncertain what would happen.”
According to the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office, Falling’s vehicle collided with another vehicle driven by Dennis Plamann, 34, of Dassel. Plamann was also treated for non-life-threatening injuries at St. Cloud Hospital. Estrada, 16, of Watkins, was a passenger in Falling’s car. He was transported to Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield with non-life-threatening injuries. Alcohol was not a factor in the crash.
Falling was trapped in his vehicle and had to be extricated by fire and rescue personnel before being airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He died three days later at HCMC.
“We obviously said a lot of prayers and prayed that good things were going to happen,” Jackman said.
“I’ve been at Litchfield for about 22 years now and we’ve had a number of situations where kids have passed or had some auto accident. It’s never easy.”
In death, Falling continues to make a difference for people. He was an organ donor, and his donations helped more than 75 people, according to a story about the family in the Star Tribune.
For some of the players, football became a release.
“We had a big football group chat and we said that we’d have times where we’d go throw at the fields if anyone wanted to take their mind off anything,” King said. “It’s always at the forefront. You don’t want to slack off, because why? We’ve gone through way tougher things.”
Said Jackman, “It would be Sunday night and there’d be 10, 12 kids playing catch or they’d do their own thing. Whatever they felt was beneficial for them.”
In a way, it was just following Falling’s off-season example.
“Back in the summer, we were doing Jackman’s training at the track. We’d call (Dylan) and we’d tell him to get out here and he was like ‘I already did the workout,’” Schutz said. “I always think back to that because I met with his dad and he was doing those workouts. He was running consistently. He gained like 15 pounds of muscle from lifting through the spring.”
“Every time I wanted to quit,” Schutz added, “I just think back to that and he’d want me to keep going. He’d be putting 100 percent into it.”
The kids also stay close with Dylan’s parents, Dustin and Michelle. King said that Dustin plays fantasy football with some of the players, but, “He’s not doing so hot,” Larson said through some light-hearted laughter.
“A number of times, the kids went out to the house and played at their house,” Jackman said. “Dylan was a social young man and wanted to be around his buddies. And they still want to be around him.”
Falling’s teammates remember razzing him over his choice in footwear.
“He had those shiny gold cleats and the first day he came and had them on, he was all ‘Oh, look at my cleats,’” Larson said between laughs. “Everyone was making fun of him. It was so funny.”
Now, the flashy footwear hangs alongside Falling’s jersey on the sideline with the rest of the team during games.
“We definitely wanted him to be out there with us,” Larson said.
After Falling’s death, there was a memorial service at Litchfield’s Optimist Park. Calling into the service, one of Dustin Falling’s talking points was about doing right by his son. “Do right by 28” is a mission statement and is printed on the back of the team’s T-shirts.
“There’s probably 400 shirts right now out there with that on it,” Jackman said.
Also on the Dragons’ sideline is a flag with Falling’s name and number, listing him as the 12th man of the team in an homage to a tradition from the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
“Mr. (Bill) King, one of the assistant coaches, talked about doing something this year with the 12th man,” Jackman said. “We thought Dylan would be our 12th man this year. We had a flag designed for him. And during our introductions, he’s included in that.”
The players also have notes and tributes to Falling written on their tape and cleats, wherever marker will stay put.
“It’s hard to lose when you have 12 guys on the field,” Logan King said with a smile.
In Dylan’s own words
On both the practice field and the football stadium are murals of Falling. Senior Bennett Lecher edited a photo of Falling with angel’s wings and a halo. That image was also made into stickers that players have on the back of their helmets.
Accompanying Falling’s image on the field signs is a blog post about hardships that he wrote last spring during distance learning:
“Life is great. The only way to live a great and prosperous life is to pull through adversity and hardships. Not one person who is successful in this world has gone without hardship. Hardships define a person’s character and personality. Going through hardships shows who wants a good life and who wants to push through to success.” ~ Dylan Falling #28
Falling’s own words have been fitting in helping Litchfield through the grieving process.
“The hardships piece really fit the situation,” Jackman said. “It’s something that I thought would be really good for the kids to see.”
Said Larson, “It keeps our mentality up. And when it’s going hard, we know we’ve been through harder.”
The team bond certainly has grown in the Dragons’ 2-0 start. But, Falling’s impact on his classmates’ lives extends far beyond athletics.
“It’s brought us all closer to God, I feel like,” Larson said. “We have all been praying more.”
King added, “I’ve grown closer to other people in my grade through this. Before, I wasn’t as close to everyone else and now I’m closer to everyone else in my grade.”
Check out the West Central Tribune’s e-edition at Epaper.wctrib.com for results from all of tonight’s area high school football games, including pictures from Rocori at Willmar and Albany at New London-Spicer.