Emotional Rebels attempting to focus on football after tragedy

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV’s Xzavier Campbell (35) is praised for his score by head coach Tony Sanchez with teammate Lexington Thomas (3) near versus Jackson State at Sam Boyd Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016.

This week, the UNLV football team is tasked with doing the impossible.

It has nothing to do with Saturday’s opponent, Mountain West favorite San Diego State, formidable though the undefeated Aztecs may be. At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, head coach Tony Sanchez outlined UNLV’s unimaginable assignment: Moving on.

Less than 48 hours after a mass shooting on the Strip that left at least 58 people dead, Sanchez explained that his team, which is largely comprised of players and coaches with local roots, will have to find a way to put aside their emotions for three hours on Saturday and play a game.

“It’s our job and it’s the job of each and every one of us to get back up and to go back to work and to keep living our lives and to continue to celebrate and to do the things that these acts try to eliminate,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve learned as a nation is when these things happen, we need to grieve and we need to give it time, but we also need to keep living and keep loving and keep doing the things that make this country so great. We can never let that stop and that has to be our combined mission.”

Playing Saturday’s game will be an emotional ordeal for the Rebels. More than 20 players on this year’s team are from the Las Vegas area, including team captains Mike Hughes, Devonte Boyd and Zack Singer.

Hughes, a senior defensive lineman who graduated from Palo Verde, said he and his teammates are motivated by more than winning and losing this week.

“I feel like we all understand what the mission is for the week, and that’s to go out and put forth a great three hours for the city,” Hughes said. “I know a victory here isn’t going to match the hurt, but if they can come for three hours and be happy throughout the game, it’s something that we did to help them and that’s all that we’re looking forward to doing.”

The Rebels practiced on campus at Rebel Park on Sunday night, leaving the field just hours before the shooting began approximately two miles away. Because many of the players have ties to the local community, much of Sunday night and Monday morning was spent trying to locate friends, family and loved ones.

Hughes said that while he didn’t personally know anyone who was at the festival, he has friends that were close to some of the victims. Some of his teammates are in similar situations.

“Vegas is real small, so a lot of people are connected somehow,” Hughes said. “So you somehow know of somebody that may know somebody that was hurt in that situation. So I would say yeah, it’s personal.”

In spite of the emotional turmoil enveloping the entire city, Sanchez believes keeping the team focused on football will be beneficial to the players and the community.

“[Tuesday] they came back in and we told them we have a job to do and a great opportunity to go out Saturday night and give some people in our community a little bit of a reprieve and a little bit of a break from it,” Sanchez said. “There’s so many people that are hurting right now that are going to have to pull themselves out of bed and out of their house and hopefully you get a couple hours of getting away from it a little bit, because it’s going to linger and be there for a long time. But if we can go out and play an inspired game and give everybody an opportunity to breathe a little bit and forget for a minute, then we need to do that. That’s our job and we’re back at work.”

“The biggest thing is normalcy,” Sanchez continued. “Getting back to a routine. Coming in at the same time, having the same meetings, and the same messages, knowing that there’s other things out there that are distracting for all of us, myself included, but there is a job to be done and when you get back to work and focus on those things I think it helps you rebound a little bit quicker. And we talked about it today—What I’m feeling, what we’re feeling is nothing compared to some of these families. I can’t even fathom what it would be like to get a call from my daughter or my son or my wife or a brother or a sister that they’re not coming home. So we’re going to be okay. Those are the people we need to worry about and wrap our arms around.”

Honoring victims, heroes

UNLV will hold a pregame ceremony to honor the victims and spotlight some of the first responders who worked to save lives in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

It was also announced that UNLV and San Diego State will both wear special helmet decals for the game as a show of unity. The decal will depict a red ribbon inscribed with the words “Las Vegas.”

“Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims and the families impacted by this senseless act of violence,” UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois said via a statement. “While football is just a game, it can also serve as a rallying point of unity and allow all of us to recognize the incredible heroism displayed by so many this week. We are all extremely proud of our community’s response over the last couple of days.”

UNR also announced it will sport a similar ribbon decal on its helmets for the rest of the season.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or michael.grimala@gmgvegas.com. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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