Middle school football team honors 11-year-old boy who died suddenly before season started

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — A Union County middle school football team is honoring an 11-year-old boy who left a lasting impression before he died suddenly, just months before joining the team.

From the moment the football team’s season started, their mission was clear. Perhaps even more important than how they play is who the team is playing for.

“We want it to be bigger than just football,” said John Arthur, head football coach of the sixth grade team. “I encourage the kids all the time. This is a brotherhood. Eli is always with us.”

Eli Svonovec had a smile that could often be seen through his eyes. His friends joked the 11-year-old was one of the funniest people you’d ever meet.

“He was really funny. Really stupid,” remembered 12-year-old Connor Hix.

Svonovec was also someone who made friends almost instantly.

“We were in the same neighborhood. The same class. The same everything, and I just asked him if he wanted to be my friend,” Hix said.

11-year-old Vincent Buckowsky agreed.

“In second grade, me and my friend Garrett used to hang out a lot and then Eli joined our school. He started playing with us at recess and we just got closer,” Buckowsky said.

It’s the memories they’re creating now that keep them close. On May 30, Eli Svonovec died suddenly. The 11-year old was just months shy of joining the sixth grade football team at Marvin Ridge Middle School. His family said he loved football.

“The players tell me all about him -- how great of a kid he was, how impactful he was,” Coach Arthur said.

Arthur said coaching the Mavericks has had a huge influence on his life.

“This has been a truly ground-shaking experience for me,” Arthur said. “I didn’t know where to start other than at square one.”

The Mavericks started by dedicating their entire season to Eli, and they even placed a quirky reminder at the top of mind: a ketchup bottle sticker on each player’s helmet.

“I remember reading his obituary and it talks about at the very end, ‘ketchup is the greatest condiment in the world’ and I got a good kick out of that,” Arthur said laughing. “It just made me laugh. Man that would be something cool to incorporate.”

And so they did. Over Labor Day weekend, during the first play of the game, the Mavericks lined up with ten players instead of 11. That last spot was reserved for Eli.

“They realize it’s bigger than just themselves,” Arthur said. “We had a touchdown last week scored by one of his best friends and he points to the sky, and I thought it was so touching -- not heartbreaking, but touching just because he really just impacted these kids so much.”

The Marvin Ridge sixth grade team also launched a football fund in Eli’s honor. All donations will go toward creating a lasting memory of the 11-year-old within their program. For more information, click here.

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