Wednesday morning the San Jose SaberCats returned to the practice field for the first time since the death of fullback Johnie Kirton. The session was closed to the media. Afterward, the team, on the advice of grief counselors, opted not to make players available for interviews. A handful of them did acknowledge me as they left the practice field and it took nothing more than the simple glances to see that they are all still shocked by Kirton's tragic passing.
Head Coach Darren Arbet did address the media in a more formal fashion, but he too is at a loss for wrapping his head around the death of a player. "There's a pit in the bottom of your stomach," Arbet said. "It's really tough on the guys and the coaching staff. We've grown close to him the last three weeks and he had a great personality and work ethic."
NEWS: SaberCats announce death of Johnie Kirton
Arbet all but put to rest the speculation Kirton's death could have been a suicide or in some way tied to concussions. "As far as we understand, natural causes is what they're telling us," Arbet said. "That's all we know right now." And probably all anyone will know until the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office issues an official report.
The SaberCats first learned of Kirton's passing Monday night when his body was discovered in his room at the hotel the team uses to house players who are still settling into the San Jose area. Kirton was acquired in a trade with Arizona on May 9 to fill the void left when Tommy Taggart was placed on IR.
Quarterback Mark Grieb told the San Jose Mercury News Kirton's body was discovered by a SaberCats teammate who had been asked to check on him by his girlfriend when she was unsuccessful reaching the player.
Coach Arbet is well aware the impact of such a discovery could have profound effects on both that player and his entire team, "We had counselors come in and talk with everyone yesterday, to kinda help us through that first day." As for resuming football activities today, Arbet says that was a welcome distraction, "Going out there and coaching got my mind going somewhere else and I feel a little better now." He added, "The players worked hard today. I think it's a good thing to get them out on he field and get it off their mind."
The team plans to honor Kirton by placing stickers with his No. 37 on their helmets this weekend when it plays at Milwaukee. Arbet added that this is the first of what he expects to be a number of tributes the team will make towards the fallen teammate. Another will be attending Kirton's funeral, "whenever and wherever it takes place." As of now, no funeral arrangements have been made.
Going forward, Arbet says he's not as worried about his football team as he is for those who knew Kirton best, "You're never prepared for anything like this. This is as tough as it gets but we have a lot of support here from ownership on down. We just feel for his family and friends."