Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Marlene Gomez knows her dad only through stories and photos. He died before she was born.
Ed Gomez is a legend in the Las Vegas High School community, the teen has long been told. His former football team dedicates every season to him, and coaches proudly recall the days when he was their defensive leader in the secondary.
Ed died in 2003 from a football injury, the result of a play where the safety put a tough hit on a wide receiver to jar the ball loose and secure a Sunrise Regional championship game victory for Las Vegas.
He walked off the field under his own strength. Moments later, however, he collapsed. Twenty-two hours later, after teammates and girlfriend Kelly Hill were allowed to say their goodbyes, he died from blunt-force trauma at University Medical Center.
Six months later, Hill gave birth to Marlene.
• • •
Marlene, 13, walked into the Las Vegas High locker room this summer to see her baby picture taped to the door of the coaches’ office. A photo of her dad in his Wildcats uniform was beside it. The photos, showing that they have the same eyes, smile and thick curly hair, were added in 2004 and haven’t been touched.
Marlene was shown her dad’s old locker, retired with his name still on it. The same goes for his jersey, No. 21, framed in the office. The number is stitched on the team’s jerseys.
The locker is decorated with Wildcat-paw stickers that are given to players for a good performance and applied to their helmets. When the team earns a sticker, Gomez’s locker gets one, too .
A sign above the room’s door reads, “Wildcat 21 Forever” in the school’s colors of red, black and white. A highlight reel of Gomez’s plays is shown for freshmen so they understand “the Wildcat way.”
“We live by 21,” said Erick Capetillo, the first-year Las Vegas coach who was Gomez’s teammate.
Daysi Garcia, Ed’s mother, decided it was time to bring her granddaughter to visit the school because she’s now old enough to appreciate the significance of the football program’s tributes to her dad.
When they walked into the courtyard, counselor Mike Jarnegan darted out from his office to greet them. It’s school protocol in the summer for staff to welcome visitors, many of whom are registering their children for classes. But as Jarnegan saw Garcia, he sensed she was an old friend.
“She looked awfully familiar, but I couldn’t put a place to the face,” said Jarnegan, whose son, Mike Jr., played with Gomez. “She said, ‘I remember you.’ Then it hit me. I said, ‘Oh gosh, it’s so nice to see you.’ Then she introduced me to Eddie’s daughter. It was really great to see that young lady. She has grown up to be a bright young lady.”
Soon, he was showing them the campus and taking them to the football offices. School staff members showered Marlene with shirts and memorabilia. Staff started messaging one another, and a group of old friends quickly made their way to campus. A few of Ed Gomez’s former teammates have returned to the school as teachers; many of Gomez’s teachers are still there.
“That was pretty exciting (for Marlene),” Hill said. “It’s nice for her to know what the school is doing to keep his memory alive. He put his heart and soul into the school.”
The trip was also therapeutic for Garcia. The smell of the locker room brought back memories. It’s exactly how he smelled after games, she told staff.
• • •
Hill, three months pregnant with her baby bump starting to show, was waiting for Gomez in the cold November night outside the stadium following the game in which he was fatally injured. She’d always greet him with a hug and kiss after games.
One by one, his teammates left the field.
“Someone said, ‘21’s hurt,’ ” Hill said. “I yelled, ‘No, don’t tell me that.’ I ran onto the field and collapsed.”
There was a painful farewell in the hospital and at the funeral, all while handling a pregnancy.
Marlene’s baby book is filled with photos of her dad. There are love letters from dad to mom, containing the couple’s plans, including what to name their child — Marlene Daysi after their mothers. Hill’s mom is Marlene.
“I’ve always had pictures of her dad around, still to this day,” Hill said. “She was raised around those pictures, and the words of everyone who knew him.”
Hill and Marlene moved to Idaho in 2014. They still visit regularly and plan to make more trips back to the high school.
“Nobody can wear his jersey. That tells me he’s pretty special,” Marlene said.
Coaches haven’t ordered jersey No. 21 when restocking uniforms, stressing to equipment providers not to send one. But Marlene wants a Las Vegas High No. 21, which Capetillo is having made with “Gomez” hand-stitched on the back.
“Ed’s mom wanted to show (Marlene) that this is what your dad loved doing,” Capetillo said. “They knew we at the school were big Ed Gomez fans. What caught them by surprise is they didn’t realize we still had his locker or this sign. She was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ ”
• • •
Former Las Vegas coach Kris Cinkovich was steadfast in his rule about ineligible players. If you couldn’t get your work done in the classroom, you couldn’t be with the team. No socials. No practice. No sideline on game day.
But the team, with aspirations of a state championship during Gomez’s senior year, needed him around to reach its potential, even though he was ineligible at the start of the year. And Gomez needed football to stay on track with his studies. He became the “state’s best practice player,” and on game days he helped signal in defensive plays. After practice, he’d often organize outings at a nearby park for lower-level and middle school players.
“He was different, man. Just something about the kid’s spirit,” said Cinkovich, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Idaho. “I hate how his story, at least the earth part of it, ended. ... He was passionate about football. He was a good player. He could run. And he could hit.”
Last fall, when Idaho played at UNLV, Cinkovich visited Gomez’s grave. Until he moved from Las Vegas, Cinkovich would visit annually on the anniversary of his death. One year, he ran into Gomez’s dad.
Cinkovich and his wife, Joanie, were together this summer when a text message arrived from Capetillo. It was a picture of Marlene in the locker room.
“It was startling to me,” he said. “That brought a lot of memories for us. That was pretty cool.”
After becoming eligible, Gomez played in three games during his senior season, all Wildcat victories. Las Vegas won the week after his death in the state semifinals, but narrowly lost to Reno in the state championship game. The team won state titles in 2005 and ’06.
To this day, Capetillo visits Gomez’s grave before every season.
“It gets emotional for everybody because Ed Gomez meant more to the program than a lot of people realize,” Capetillo said. “That is what I told his mom and daughter. Not only does he bring inspiration to myself but to our program because he was a Wildcat. If there was a definition of a Wildcat, it was Ed. He was exactly what a Wildcat football player should be.”