Xavier McClain dies from a head injury at 16

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LINDEN, NJ — Players warmed up and were directed by assistant coaches under the afternoon sun that engulfed Tiger Stadium at Cooper Field on Saturday, Sept. 24.

One hour before kickoff, the Linden Tigers went through their usual pregame rituals, with head coach Al Chiola standing among them as he began to observe their opponent, the Perth Amboy Panthers, from across the field.

Perth Amboy High School entered Cooper Field with a 2-1 record and a two-game winning streak. Linden High School’s football team was 1-2 and seeking to even its record as the Big Central Conference–Liberty Gold clash ensued.

However, team records and statistics of any kind were not on the minds of the players, coaches and fans who were in attendance.
For the first time, the Linden Tigers were playing a football game after budding standout Xavier McClain, a sophomore, died at the age of 16, three days earlier.

McClain was critically injured during Linden’s second game, at Woodbridge High School, on Friday, Sept. 9. The second-year varsity player suffered a traumatic head injury after returning the second-half kickoff in that game.

McClain remained in a coma for nearly two weeks at University Hospital in Newark before dying on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

“We are extremely saddened by his untimely death,” acting Superintendent of Schools Denise Cleary said in an email on Thursday, Sept. 22, to district staff.

“Together, we prayed for a miracle and hoped for a different outcome,” Linden Mayor Derek Armstead, a close McClain family friend, wrote in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts. “I trust that God knows better. He needed an angel and decided to call Xavier home to be with him.

Xavier’s teammates are now wearing armbands that say ‘E4X,’ which stands for ‘Everything for Xavier.’” The No. 16 was also inscribed on the backs of their helmets.

“This is difficult to explain,” Chiola said when interviewed on the Linden sideline moments before kickoff against Perth Amboy on Saturday, Sept,. 24.

Linden went on to win, 13-0, behind first-half rushing touchdowns scored by junior halfback Alex Donic in the first quarter and junior quarterback Tequan Thomas in the second.

“You just don’t have any answers,” Chiola said.

Chiola has been a coach now for 21 years. His son, Casey, is a junior wide receiver/defensive back at Chiola’s alma mater, Colonia High School.

“We will keep Xavier’s memory close to us, always,” Chiola said.
Chiola said that McClain, as a freshman last year, played a little bit at every level.

“He had one or two carries on varsity and played some special teams there,” Chiola said. “There are just no words right now to describe what the family is going through. This is just an absolute terrible tragedy for the entire Linden football community.”

Chiola described McClain as a youngster who “had a love for the game of football.”

“He had great passion,” Chiola said. “He was always smiling, yet he had an intensity, a motor and was becoming a gifted athlete.”

Linden is now preparing for its next game, at John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in Iselin, on Friday, Sept. 30. The Tigers then return home for games at Cooper Field against Summit High School on Friday, Oct. 7, and Cranford High School on Friday, Oct. 14.

Linden will close its regular season on Friday, Oct. 21, at Montgomery High School, as the Tigers make an attempt to qualify for the state playoffs out of North, Group 4.

The remainder of Linden’s 2022 campaign will be dedicated to its fallen star, Xavier McClain.

Photos Courtesy of Derek Armstead and JR Parachini