September 17, 2021. It was a beautiful evening, and we were all so excited to finally return to Friday Night Lights. At Woodbridge Senior High School (WSHS) in Woodbridge, VA, school spirit was at an all-time high. The sun had just set as I began to take a video of one of the students’ signature chants. It was turning out to be such a perfect night.
Suddenly, fans leaned forward with a look of concern, and as I turned back toward the field, I saw a crowd gathering around a person who was laying on our sideline. Seconds later, our team was kneeling in prayer as one of our coaches stood above them to ensure their attention was diverted. The stands became silent, and as CPR began, I knew this was serious. The ambulance soon drove away after the medics had done all they could do. The game was called off, and I witnessed tears flowing from the football field to the stands. Now more than ever, my leadership was needed.
In addition to my administration team, police officers, parents, and staff members gathered on the field to support our student athletes and fans as they exited the stadium. I called my husband and told him what was happening. He had just headed out of town for our son’s baseball tournament, and I had planned to leave the next morning to join them. Something inside me knew that wasn’t going to happen now.
I arrived at the hospital just in time to hear the tragic news. Fred Moore, our beloved defensive coordinator and math teacher, had died after suffering a medical emergency. He was 33 years old. After comforting Moore’s wife and our coaching staff, I jumped into action and began to do everything I had learned in my leadership classes, along with everything else I hadn’t learned.
Communicating the News
It was after 10 p.m., and I knew the news would travel quickly through social media. With permission from the family, I alerted my supervisor as well as my administration team and worked with our communications office to release a letter announcing Coach Moore’s passing to our students and families. Then, I turned to my Twitter account to share the letter and posted it on our school Facebook page as well as our website, emphasizing the supports that would be provided in the coming days. This was all done before midnight.
Implementing Immediate Supports
Our football players, coaches, and managers were within feet of Coach Moore when he collapsed. Our cheerleaders and band members were also nearby. I knew that those who witnessed this tragedy firsthand needed to begin processing what had happened right away, so waiting until Monday was not an option. I had been in contact with members of our central office staff, and with their support, we scheduled an 8 a.m. meeting at school that Saturday morning. Our varsity football team, cheerleaders, coaches, band members, and staff from WSHS and Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS), along with chaplains from the police department and the hospital, assembled in our auditorium, and we began the healing process. We spent nearly two hours together, and through tears, we comforted one another and talked about the man who had forever changed our lives.
Supporting the Family
Coach Moore had married his college sweetheart and their life as a couple was filled with so much hope for the future. After talking with our head football coach, we decided to immediately set up a GoFundMe to support Mrs. Moore with the unexpected financial expenses. Donations far surpassed the initial goal of $15,000.
I also wanted to capture the beautiful messages we had been receiving about Coach Moore. I reached out to one of our assistant principals that Saturday morning, and she set up an online forum (Padlet) for anyone to share photos, memories, and condolences. Before we knew it, we had over 30 pages of tributes that we will have printed into a memory book for the Moore family.
Finally, since I knew Coach Moore would be laid to rest in his home state of Alabama, we organized a remembrance ceremony to take place after school on Monday as our football players took the field for the first time without their defensive coordinator. Not only did Mrs. Moore, her parents, and Coach Moore’s older brother join us for the ceremony, we were also joined by our school superintendent, and our school board member. After a moment of silence and hearing some words of support from those who had joined us, Mrs. Moore and Coach Moore’s older brother spoke to the football team. Their strength lifted us all. We closed with a member of our choir singing “Over the Rainbow.”
Grief Counseling for All
The PWCS Critical Incident Team arrived before school started on Monday morning. In a school with over 2,800 students, I knew that not every student has social media, and many would not have seen the email I had sent Friday night. So, for many, they would be hearing about Moore’s death on the PA announcements. The halls were a lot quieter that morning as I prepared to share the news while also trying to project strength and support through the microphone. I explained that we would get through this together, one class period at a time. And we did. The library doors revolved throughout the day as students and staff members stopped by to grieve and receive support. With an hour left before dismissal, I walked in, sat down, and began to process through my own grief with a counselor. The library was still full of students, and reflecting on that moment, I hope students saw me and realized that you can never be too strong or too old to seek out support.
Celebrating a Life Well Lived
In the days and weeks that followed Coach Moore’s death, we celebrated a life well lived. I was interviewed by several news stations in the Washington, D.C., area, and with each interview I tried to capture the essence of this incredible man. He died doing what he loved, and I wanted everyone to know that about Coach Moore. In addition to the #BeMoore T-shirts that were ordered, the mural that was designed, and the Fred Moore Scholarship fund that was established, students who had never had a chance to meet him stepped up to support their peers. One student used over 1,500 blocks to design a Minecraft portrait of Coach Moore. Another student created water bottles for our football coaches with #BeMoore and #StriveMoore printed on the side. And a local church organized a beautiful candlelight vigil for our school community. It was so beautiful and contributed immensely to our healing process.
Just a week after Coach Moore’s death, we returned to the football field for Friday Night Lights wearing purple, his favorite color. I sent this email to our school community:
We witnessed an unspeakable tragedy last Friday night. In the minutes, hours, and days that followed, Vikings exemplified everything Mr. Moore was as a coach, teacher, and friend. May his legacy live on in each of us as we #SmileMoore, #LoveMoore, #StriveMoore, #CareMoore, and #BeMoore.
We won the game that night, and as the stadium emptied, I exhaled. I walked to my car, headed home to pack, and left at 5 a.m. the next morning to meet my husband and son.
I have faced challenges in my time as principal, but this was like nothing I had ever experienced. Our school community continues to heal, and together we are committed to keeping Coach Moore’s legacy alive at WSHS.
Heather Abney is the principal of Woodbridge Senior High School in Woodbridge, VA.