Saturday morning dawned in Holt, gray and overcast, the clouds hanging low. There was one burst of brightness to break the gloom. The Holt High School message board on Jack Warner Parkway had a message in big, colorful letters — “Congratulations Boys Basketball! Class 4A, Area 11 Champions!!”
That’s a big deal in Holt, a small community on the eastern edge of Tuscaloosa, a working class enclave where work can sometimes be hard to find. The 2011 tornado spared the high school, hewing a path about a mile further south of the Black Warrior River. Holt Elementary School wasn’t so lucky. That school has been rebuilt but there is still a scar running through the area, identifiable by still-twisted trees and empty blocks where houses used to stand. Things are tough in other ways. The high school made the news during the cold snap last month because some of the classrooms didn’t have functioning heaters.
Still, the students persevere, the basketball team being a big part of that. On Thursday night, Jalen Merriweather was part of that team, celebrating the win over Sipsey Valley with friends on Facebook.
“He was a starter for us, a member of the all-area team,” an emotional Holt coach Steven Watkins said on Saturday. “He was literally in your newspaper on Friday, in the sports section.
“Today, he’s on the front page.”
On the front page, that is, as another victim of violence, a young man gone at 18, shot as he tried to protect his older sister from a domestic violence incident where she was being pistol-whipped by a man with whom she had a child. Merriweather went to her defense. Shooting started. Merriweather was killed, the suspected killer still at large as this column was written.
“He was a good young man, the kind you like to coach not because he was a good player, which he was, but because he was such a good person,” Watkins said.
The team met on Saturday morning, what Watkins describes as “a private time,” as it should be. Parents came to support the players. Local ministers came to pray with the team and the members of the Merriweather family. Friends and fellow students started a Twitter hashtag, #LongLiveJay, where they shared memories or simply expressed anguish.
Few asked for answers. What answers are there to give? The answer isn’t “too many guns” or “too many evil people with guns.” If there is one message, it should be this: please take domestic violence for the deadly serious business it is. Report it, and support the authorities when they act upon it. Otherwise, it simply serves as a breeding ground for more violence, with a reach that can extend to anyone, even a brave 18-year old like Jalen Merriweather.
Holt will be back on the basketball court Tuesday night, hosting a sub-Regional game. Watkins said Merriweather would have wanted that, would have urged his teammates to play on. There will be a memorial before the game, although Watkins said that administrators are still deciding what form that will take.
On the sign outside of Holt High School, the one celebrating the basketball win, it proclaims Holt as “Home Of The Ironmen,” one of the unique nicknames in Alabama prep sports, a throwback to the area’s industrial past and, in a way, its fierce will to survive through storm and sadness.
These students aren’t iron, though. They are young people, boys and girls, even if they have seen a lot in their short years. They are flesh and bone, bodies that can tear and be torn, hearts that break.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.
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