If he told them once, he told them a thousand times: This was their year. They were seniors. They were going to win a South Jersey title in football.
That was Kyle Pszenny. He could talk. His voice was a constant in the huddle, in the locker room, in the classroom, in any social situation.
"Kyle is the kind of kid, he lights up a room," Pennsville High School senior Jeremy Boucher said. "He could talk to anybody about anything."
For the senior captains of Pennsville's newly crowned championship team - Boucher, Matt Widmaier, Ryan Simpkins and Josh Van Blarcom - their close friend's constant chatter didn't truly stop during the Eagles' sad and sweet and "surreal" run to the little Salem County school's first sectional title in football in 34 years.
They know that sounds strange. But this whole experience was like that: The best season of their lives and the worst season of their lives, playing out at the same time.
Stranger still: Somehow that came to make sense, as their sorrow only reinforced their strength, and as their success on the field only underscored their ache at their buddy's absence.
The four seniors are convinced they won a sectional title in large part because Pszenny's voice never fully faded, despite his devastating injuries from an accident when he was struck by an automobile while riding his skateboard in early June.
They are convinced they are improbable champions because Pszenny did the same thing from his hospital room and during his surprise appearance on the sideline in the title game that he has always done: Bring out the best in them.
"There's no way to describe it," said Van Blarcom, a two-way back. "It's surreal. It's like a movie. It's like we were in a movie."
Pennsville coach Ryan Wood fell asleep on the couch on the night of June 6, a long-forgotten movie playing on the television.
His cellphone rang at 4 a.m.
"This can't be good," Wood thought as he reached for the phone and saw the name of Pszenny's mother, Crystal Parks, on the screen.
The coach and those four soon-to-be senior players were roused from slumber by that shrill signal to begin a journey that would culminate six months later, when they shed tears of sadness and joy and placed a championship trophy in the lap of a young man in a wheelchair.
"I still am amazed by how things played out," Wood said. "You couldn't write it any better."
Pennsville's drive to the South Jersey Group 1 championship was special in strictly football terms. The Eagles weren't projected as one of the favorites before the season, as Salem and Penns Grove and Paulsboro all seemed like significantly stronger squads.
That the team somehow pulled through, finished with an 11-1 record and captured the sectional crown was a tribute to the players' determination, their resiliency through the adversity of a challenging season.
For Boucher, Simpkins, Van Blarcom and Widmaier, the true wonder of the fall of 2015 was how their emotions were tugged to such extremes: Shock and sorrow over their teammate's situation, joy and pride over their ability to do something that no Pennsville team had accomplished since 1981.
And to do it for their friend, and to win the championship with him on the sideline less than a week after being released from a stay of more than five months in the hospital, and to place the trophy in his lap during a celebration at midfield . . . it was almost too much to reconcile.
"A whirlwind of emotions," Boucher said. "You're so happy because you won a championship and you can share it with Kyle and give him the trophy.
"But it's somber because you know how much he would have loved to be out on the field with us."
Said Simpkins, a two-way lineman: "It's so bittersweet. I'd give anything to go back to June and have him play with us this season."
Pszenny was on his way to Van Blarcom's house early on the morning of June 7. Pszenny had finished his shift as a dishwasher at the River View restaurant on the banks of the Delaware River in Pennsville, and had glided on his skateboard over to his girlfriend's house.
He would leave her house around 1:30 a.m., jump back on his skateboard and make his way toward Van Blarcom's home on Hook Road, on the other side of town.
Pszenny was struck by an automobile at around 1:50 a.m., according to Pennsville police chief Allen J. Cummings.
A 23-year-old Pennsville man, Zachary McDonough, turned himself in to police on the afternoon of June 8 and was charged with assault by auto, knowingly leaving the scene of an accident with serious bodily injury, endangering an injured victim, hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence.
The case has not yet been heard by the Salem County grand jury, Cummings said.
Pszenny suffered severe brain damage as well as a dislocated neck. His right sinus and his left tibia and fibula were fractured.
Cummings said police recovered Pszenny's skateboard in four pieces in the middle of Hook Road, less than a mile from Van Blarcom's house.
"There was not one part of his brain that wasn't injured," Parks said. "They were telling me, 'Crystal, it's a devastating, severe brain injury.' "
Pszenny was in a coma for more than three weeks and underwent multiple surgeries to relieve pressure on his brain. After nearly six months between Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., and Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., he was discharged on Nov. 30, five days before his teammates took the field at Rowan University for the championship game.
Parks said that with a brain injury as severe as the one suffered by her son, doctors "won't give a prognosis for a year."
Pszenny has made progress, especially in the last few weeks. He spoke for the first time on Dec. 14, whispering "mom."
On a recent night in the family's kitchen, Pszenny gave a thumbs-up sign and fist-bumped a visitor.
"Such amazing miracles," Parks said of her son's improvement. "It really started when we took him to the [championship] game.
"He was hearing, 'Pennsville first down' and 'Catch by Boucher' on the P.A. system and it really was the first time he opened his eyes for an extended time and seemed really alert."
Parks is moved to tears when she talks of her son's four best buddies on the football team, and their regular trips to the hospital, and their willingness to engage with doctors and therapists.
"What 17- and 18-year-old kid wants to learn how to help with physical therapy and occupational therapy?" Parks said. "These kids saw a lot. They were getting scrubbed up and going into ICU with him.
"They saw what he looked like when this first happened and they kept coming back. They surrounded him. They protected him."
Boucher, Simpkins, Van Blarcom and Widmaier - along with Pennsville senior Frank Wyshinski, another close friend of Pszenny's and a top wrestler - tried to visit Pszenny on a weekly basis.
"It was hard with school and football, but we made time," Simpkins said. "We wanted to be there as much as we could."
Kyle and his older brother Matt, 19, are "pros" at taking care of their younger brothers, twins Nathan and Nick, 10, and Patrick, 8, according to the boys' mother.
"I was a single mom with five sons," said Parks, a registered nurse who was remarried to Larry Parks earlier this year.
Wood remembers many days in past summers when he would see Kyle Pszenny walking his younger brothers to a day-care facility before joining teammates for a workout.
"Mom would go to work and Kyle would get the younger boys ready to go and you'd see him walking down the street, a little brother in each hand," Wood said. "He would make sure his brothers were OK, then he would be the first one at practice."
Loves to talk
Parks said her second son loves to ride his bike and skateboard. He also loves to play football, cook and talk. Especially talk.
"One time he was cooking and he slammed the spatula down," Parks said. "If you know him, you know that's not like him.
"He said, 'Mom, would you pay attention to me when I'm talking?'
"I said, 'Honey, if I did that I'd never get anything done.' "
Pszenny's teammates marvel at his upbeat nature.
"He cheers for everybody," Widmaier said. "He always was the one saying, 'C'mon guys, we can do it.' "
Simpkins said Pszenny was "the best friend a guy could ask for" and a constant source of laughter.
"It was hard to have a bad attitude around Kyle," Simpkins said.
Boucher said Pszenny, a wide receiver, talked incessantly about winning a South Jersey Group 1 title.
"We had some guys ahead of us who set a bunch of records, but they never won a championship," Boucher said. "Kyle would always say, 'We're not going to set records. We're going to win a state title.' "
On Oct. 10, Pennsville was beaten, 40-13, by Salem.
"I thought at that point they were the best team in Group 1," Wood said of Salem.
Pennsville settled back into a groove and entered the state tournament with a 7-1 record.
But the Eagles were in deep trouble in the first-round playoff game on Nov. 13, as Woodbury took a 19-15 lead with less than a minute to play.
"There were 52 seconds left when they were kicking off," Wood recalled.
The Eagles got a 58-yard kickoff return from junior Brennan Rieco, drove the field in smart fashion and won the game on a 5-yard touchdown run by junior P.J. Halter in the final seconds.
The next week, more late heroics. This time, Pennsville was behind 13-0 at halftime to defending Group 1 champion Paulsboro, the most decorated small-school public program in the state.
But Pennsville rallied as Boucher made an key interception, and Van Blarcom caught a touchdown pass, and the Eagles scored 27 unanswered points for a 27-13 victory.
"The night before that game was Kyle's birthday," Parks said. "Those four left the team dinner to come to the hospital.
"I said, 'Guys, kick Paulsboro's butt and I'll host the team dinner before the championship game.'
"They said, 'We got it.' "
Wood's most memorable moment wasn't either of the dramatic comebacks in the playoffs, or even the win over Clayton in the championship game.
It was later that Dec. 5 afternoon.
The two team buses returned to Pennsville, honking their horns on their way to the school.
Signed game ball
Wood asked all the players to sign the game ball. He drove to Pszenny's home. He saw Simpkins playing in the front yard with a couple of Pszenny's younger brothers.
He walked into the back room, where Pszenny lay in his bed, beneath a large poster with "Kyle Strong" in big block letters.
On a wall was a picture of Pszenny with Boucher, Simpkins, Van Blarcom and Widmaier on the night before the Paulsboro game, when they visited the hospital to celebrate Pszenny's 18th birthday.
"It was just me and him, for maybe 10 minutes," Wood said, his voice choked with emotion. "I told him I loved him and kissed him on the forehead. I told him how proud I was of him.
"I put the football in his arms. He grabbed it."
Pennsville earned the program's first South Jersey championship in 34 years with a 28-6 victory over Clayton at Richard Wackar Stadium on the Rowan University campus.
Seemingly half of the little town's population was in the stands that warm Saturday afternoon, with the student section - known as "Nest Nation" - all decked out in blue.
Pszenny arrived in the second quarter. Parks and some others stood next to his wheelchair in front of the stands until halftime, when they moved to the track behind the Pennsville bench.
When the game ended, Wood pushed Pszenny's wheelchair to midfield and Pszenny's teammates gathered around him as the senior captains placed the trophy on his lap.
Van Blarcom held Pszenny's hand.
"He likes to have his hand held," Van Blarcom said. "He still has his strength. He still has his grip."
The four seniors gathered close to Pszenny's wheelchair, tears in their eyes.
Simpkins called it "one of the best moments of my life, to be able to do that for our friend."
Widmaier said it was "the best thing in the world."
Moments earlier, Van Blarcom had raced off the field and embraced Parks, whispering in her ear, "We did it."
It was something Pszenny would say, along with a running commentary of their performance that day, and their place in Pennsville history, and how they were going to celebrate, and what they would eat, and the music that would play at the big party.
Standing on the field around his wheelchair at the end of a championship season, Pennsville's four senior captains could just hear him.