The last time Sterling Thomas saw his teammate Jeremiah Brogden alive was in the hallway at Mergenthaler Vocational High School just before the football team’s first game of the season on September 2.

The two varsity players met briefly, when Thomas was on his way to the multipurpose room at Mergenthaler — or Mervo— for the team meal. Brogden was supposed to be doing the same, but told Thomas, who is the team captain and middle linebacker, he needed to attend to a personal matter in the parking lot behind the school.

Thomas told Jeremiah Brogden to be mindful of the time and not be late to the team meal. “You’ve got to 2:50 to get down this hallway,” Thomas said before the two parted ways.

The Mervo coaches had pizza delivered before the game against Edmondson-Westside High School. It was a pre-game ritual repeated each Friday from September to November at Mervo; the players ate before descending into the locker room to dress  for the game. The meal corralled all the players in one place so the coaches could make any last-minute adjustments and keep the players’ attention squarely on football. It worked. Thomas got so wrapped up in the game to come, he didn’t notice his cell phone ringing during the meal.

“I was just eating pizza and thinking about the game,” he said.

Mervo was about to begin its defense of a state title captured nine months prior, and the game would be the first time Mervo head coach Pat Nixon got to see just how much talent he truly had. Sure, they had lost a few players, but more than half the state championship team had returned. And they had a new crop of players who had moved up from the junior varsity team who captured a city title in 2021. Among those new players was Jeremiah Brogden, who made the game-saving tackle in the junior varsity championship game.

At the same pre-game meal, Nixon assigned jersey numbers to each player. “These numbers are distractions, so we wait until before the game to hand them out, otherwise they are arguing on who gets to wear number one,” Nixon told Baltimore Beat.

Thomas got number 4. Brogden was going to be assigned number 30, but he still wasn’t at the team meal. Thomas’ cell phone buzzed again, and then again. Two more incoming phone calls, but still he didn’t answer his phone. He’d spent weeks learning the defensive alignments. Now, all he could think about was donning his blue and yellow jersey and busting through the banner the cheerleaders stretched across the south end zone, as he and the team stormed the field for the first game.

Thomas kept ignoring his phone, but another player on the team answered his as it rang. A student, maybe a football player, had been hurt in the parking lot behind school. Around the same time, Nixon saw an adult, another staff member, walk into the all-purpose room where the team was holed up.

“He’s not moving,” she told Nixon, who, for a moment, thought there must have been a  fist fight and someone was knocked unconscious.

He sprinted out of the room and past his players.

When Nixon arrived in the parking lot, Jeremiah Brogden was lying on the ground, shot. He appeared to have already succumbed to his injuries. Nixon paused, and turned around to find half of the Mervo team right behind them, staring at the lifeless body of the guy they called “Jerms.”

“I turned around and I could see my players behind me and I saw their faces,” Nixon said, “and it killed me.”

Soon after the shooting, a story began to emerge. Jeremiah Brogden was trading words with a teenager from another school. The other boy, whose name is not being released because he is a minor, is suspected of pulling out a gun and shooting Brogden. The shots rang out so loud that several teachers reported hearing them.

Word of the shooting spread quickly across the city. It was broadcast across emergency dispatch channels, which is how a close friend of Thomas’ family found out. He was the person calling Thomas’ phone — calls the Mervo senior didn’t answer. Charmaine Brown, Thomas’ mother, got word from the same family friend, and called her son. He finally picked up the phone.

“My man is on the ground, he’s not moving,” Brown remembers her son yelling into the phone.

Thomas began to cry, his voice cracked, and he frantically paced back and forth in the parking lot behind Mervo, confused about how and why one of his teammates was dying on the pavement. Brown tried to assure her son it was going to be okay. She asked him to walk away from the scene.

“You don’t need to be there,” she remembered saying into the phone.

Thomas refused her advice.

“My man is lying there, I can’t leave,” the 17-year-old senior told his mother. “Why would someone come up and do this?”

Still in tears, he hung up the phone. Jeremiah Brogden was dead. It was 2:54 p.m.

Soon, they learned that the alleged shooter was captured blocks away from the school. The game with Edmondson-Westside was canceled.

“I was on my way to the game when I heard someone had been shot at the school,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said.

He was wearing his blue and yellow sneakers, and, on his right hand, a blue state championship ring. Scott graduated from Mervo, and is a fixture along the sidelines during football season.

What was supposed to be a chance for Scott to celebrate with boys from his alma mater quickly became a routine he was all too familiar with. Talking about yet another murder in Baltimore, a city that has recorded more than 300 murders in seven years, and appears on pace to eclipse that number again.

“I’m often the person who has to deliver bad news, but this was different,” Scott said. “Death is tough, but the death of a young person is something we should never have to talk about.”

Shortly after Scott arrived, Nixon dismissed the team, not sure if they would play a season. The coach, in his 13th season leading the Mervo Mustangs, was conflicted. Would it be better to cancel the season and let the boys grieve? What about the pressure placed on the boys to defend a state title? Was football even important, right now? Questions swirled through Nixon’s head. His assistants assured the head coach the boys would be fine. Mervo players, they told him, are tough.

“One of the coaches told me ‘our kids are going to be okay, they’re resilient,’” Nixon told Baltimore Beat. “That’s kind of sad, because it means they’re used to this. They have seen people murdered. This is not uncommon, whether it’s a family member, an uncle or another friend. They have seen this before.”

On Labor Day, three days after the shooting, the team convened on Zoom to make a decision.

“As a team, and as players, we came together with an agreement that we were ready,” Thomas said. The Mervo boys would play.

Mervo had been here before, and recently. Jeremiah Brogden’s death came 10 months and 22 days after Mervo wide receiver Elijah Gorham died after suffering a traumatic brain injury when he fell to the turf in a game against archrival Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

“One of the coaches told me ‘our kids are going to be okay, they’re resilient. That’s kind of sad, because it means they’re used to this. They have seen people murdered. This is not uncommon, whether it’s a family member, an uncle or another friend. They have seen this before.”

Mervo head Football coach Pat Nixon

Mervo had unveiled a mural dedicated to Elijah Gorham on a wall between the locker room and the football field only a week before Jeremiah Brogden’s murder. The Mervo players can’t escape death and tragedy. They stare at a reminder of both when they walk past the mural to take the field for practice and games. They remind themselves in huddles when Thomas barks out the jersey numbers worn by their fallen teammates. And they wear reminders of death and tragedy in the yellow wristbands made to honor Elijah Gorham. And yet, the boys on the Mervo team told themselves and anyone who would listen, they were ready to move on, to play again. And to defend their state title.

“I think these kids are numb, especially when they can bounce back and keep moving,” Brown said.

Maybe this was how they grieved. Maybe the field was just an escape, a place to hide out from the trauma of losing two teammates in such a short span.

When Mervo finally took the field for their delayed opener on September 9, against Baltimore City College, the players were a bit too excited, and it was hot. Brandon Williams, a senior offensive guard who stands 6 feet, 3 inches and weighs north of 270 pounds, got a good sweat during warmups, and then he cramped up during the first half and was temporarily pulled from the game. “I got a bit too hyped and didn’t get enough water in me,” he said.

While the training staff worked to get him hydrated, a 5’1” women with a number 7 Mervo hat held Williams’ arm in one hand and reached her other hand under his shoulder pads to work out the cramp.

Shantres Shaw is Mervo’s team mother. She walks the sideline encouraging players, often lifting their spirits after they have heard an earful from a coach yelling about a missed block or tackle. And, on occasion, she delivers speeches the night before big games. “That’s the type of energy I put in my son, and that’s the type of energy I give them,” Shaw told Baltimore Beat.

Her son was Elijah Gorham. He wore number 7 on the 2021 Mervo team. And at a Mervo game it’s common to see number 7 Mervo hats, the yellow wristbands that read 7STRONG on one side and 7VNSHOTS on the other. Elijah Gorham wore the number 7 on the 2021 Mervo team. He was also a photographer, and 7VNSHOTS was his photography brand.

When Thomas came to the sidelines after the defense stopped a Baltimore City College drive, he called to “Mama-E,” as the team calls her, and asked if she’s okay. In the week since Jeremiah Brogden’s death, the team and those close to the Mervo Mustangs were still leaning on each other for support. Jeremiah Brogden’s death stirred up memories of Elijah Gorham’s death in 2021. And at the first game against Baltimore City College the weight of both deaths weighed heavily on the team.

“They carried my son with them all last year, and it inspired them to play hard and win a state title,” Shaw said. “Now they are carrying Jeremiah with them too.”

Near the end of the second quarter, Baltimore City College punted the ball. The Mervo punt returner made a few City College players miss and was sprinting down the sideline toward the end zone. Thomas was jogging down the field, waving on the returner. The team celebrated in the end zone. Shaw looked at the scoreboard. It read 37-0. “Thirty was Jeremiah’s number and seven was Elijah’s number, so I figured it was a good time to go,” she later said, explaining why she left at halftime.

When the horn blew at the end of the contest, the scoreboard still read 37-0, a shutout in the season opener. Coach Nixon pulled off his visor and wiped the sweat from his bald head.

The scoreboard at Baltimore City College on September 9 read “JB30” for Jeremiah Brogden who wore number 30 for Mervo. Brogden was killed on September 2, just before what was scheduled to be Mervo’s season opener.

As Nixon addressed the media, he admitted he missed one small detail on the scoreboard in the west end zone of George Petrides Stadium. Where Mervo would have been written in lights, it read JB30 instead. JB for Jeremiah Brogden, and 30, his jersey number.

Nixon walked away from the press who gathered in the field and took out his cell phone. “I have to get a picture of that,” he said. The coach stood in the end zone, and snapped pictures of the tribute to his fallen player.

Sterling Thomas is built like a Post Office mailbox with arms and legs. He can outrun most kids in this city and he has a chip on his shoulder, a slight edge just underneath the boyish smile. His response to every adult male is “yes sir” and “no sir,” but when he puts on a helmet he will take any opportunity to land a big hit on his opponents. That’s Thomas as a middle linebacker, the boy who during youth football they called Baby Ray, after Baltimore Raven great Ray Lewis. But he’s also the team captain, an extension of coach Nixon’s demand that they play hard each down and not make mistakes.

As the team prepared for their first home game, Thomas barked out commands, moving the team from one drill to the next. “Sterling [Thomas] is starting to bring a certain level of leadership. For us to have the challenges we had last week with a player being killed and them to perform the way they did was impressive,” said Alan Harvey, who has coached for more than 25 years, and is on his second stint tutoring defensive lineman at Mervo.

The impulse to lead, to demand the best from his teammates, has always been inside Thomas, according to his mother Chamaine Brown. She works at the William C. Brown Funeral Home, and her son is her most trusted assistant. “I can send Sterling [Thomas] to set up a body for a funeral and not worry that it’s going to be done right,” she said.

Brown said her son has never shied away from responsibility, but he has always been reserved. The vocal leader he became, the one Mervo players look to, developed out of  tragedy. Thomas and Elijah Gorham were inseparable during youth football. Elijah Gorham had his own nickname, Terrell Suggs, taken from the Baltimore Raven great and given to the young football player who even during flag football was determined to dole out hard hits. Even when they weren’t on the same team — Elijah Gorham was a year older — Thomas was on the sidelines cheering on his friend.

“They carried my son with them all last year, and it inspired them to play hard and win a state title. Now they are carrying Jeremiah with them too.”

Shantres Shaw, mother of Elijah Gorham

By 2021, Elijah Gorham was a talented senior wide receiver on a squad loaded with stars. Thomas was a backup linebacker who showed flashes of brilliant play on the field, mixed with moments where that edge, that chip he plays with, caused him to lose control. In that year’s season opener against Baltimore Polytechnic High School, Thomas came to the aid of a teammate and got into a scuffle with a Poly player. He was ejected and by rule couldn’t even be on the field for the following game against Dunbar. Instead he worked a funeral with his mother, and checked in on the game on livestream.

The 2021 Mervo-Dunbar game is widely considered one of the best high school games in recent Baltimore history. Dunbar edged past Mervo 48-46 in overtime. And Elijah Gorham turned in a spectacular performance, which included a kickoff return to put Mervo in the lead. But he fell to the turf hard. Thomas saw the impact on the livestream and could tell his close friend wasn’t moving. “I had to tell Sterling, ‘don’t assume the worst,’” Brown said.

Elijah Gorham was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Nixon believed he would recover. Elijah Gorham’s mother, Shantres Shaw, had been visited by enough tragedy in 2020. Surely, she wasn’t going to lose her son.

“My [other] son got shot on March the 26th of 2020, my brother got shot on May the 4th on Greenmount Avenue, he got robbed. And I had my stroke on May 31st,” Shaw said, sitting in her kitchen. “I was taking care of both my son Danta and my brother, when I had my stroke.”

All three recovered. So, when Elijah Gorham went to the hospital, Shaw believed he was coming home, and she prepared her house and his room. Shaw put up posters outside her house. She placed plush pillows in Mervo school colors at the head of his bed.

“It was to remind him he was still in the game and you will be back,” Shaw said. “It was all there to be a little pickup.”

Elijah Gorham never came home. He died on October 11, 2021. Shaw never took down the yard signs. The pillows still adorn the bed, as does a Bowie State football jersey signed by the team. Inside a glass case are the custom Nike cleats he wore the day he fell. Elijah Gorham’s ashes are in an urn in the room.

“I never took any of this down,” Shaw said. “I just added to it, to add to who he was and his legacy as a football player.”

Elijah Gorham’s death hit his best friend Sterling Thomas hard.

“Sterling felt guilty because he couldn’t be at the game, because he was ejected,” Brown said. “He thought he should have been there with [Elijah] at the time of the injury.”

When he returned to practice, the coaches noticed he was more vocal, he was a bit more serious about practice. And his play improved. Thomas started playing a bit more, and Mervo went on a tear. After losing in overtime to Dunbar, the team wouldn’t lose again, and captured the first state championship in Mervo’s history. The death of Elijah Gorham became a catalyst for their success.

When Jeremiah Brogden was killed, Thomas looked to his teammates and told them to use their teammates’ death as motivation to work harder. He told the Mervo players that Jeremiah Brogden’s death meant they were playing for more than just a school or another championship ring, they were playing to honor their dead teammate — again.

The team has practiced harder since Jeremiah Brogden’s murder, which reminds some on the coaching staff of how hard they played after Elijah Gorham died. The two deaths might be inspiring, but even that is bittersweet.

“I just wish we didn’t have to lose so much to motivate the kids,” Harvey said.

When the national anthem played over the public address system at Mervo at their first home game against Forest Park on September 16, Sterling Thomas was fidgeting with his gloves, pulling them tight. It was a last-second ritual before kickoff. He pulled the gloves on, banged his fists together, and pulled his helmet over his head. The guy who carried the weight of losing both his friends got lost in a game he loves. He let out a loud yell and ran onto the field. “I didn’t think about anything else but football today,” Thomas said after the game.

The scoreboard showed a dominant win — Mervo 44, Forest Park 0.

But Nixon wasn’t happy. Again too many penalties, too many mistakes, just like the week prior. And Nixon knew why. “The funeral hung over their heads, all of us could see it, me and the assistant coaches,” Nixon said. “It felt like they were going through the motions.”

Maybe they were. The team had to go to Jeremiah Brogden’s funeral the next day.

The line stretched out the door at Empowerment Temple AME Church in Northwest Baltimore. Jeremiah Brogden laid in the open casket dressed in his white number 30 Mervo jersey, and his family sat feet away. Much of the front row was reserved for his family and teammates, who inched past the casket, getting one last look at “Jerm.”

Coach Nixon sat just behind his players. His aviator glasses hid his eyes, but the tears rolled down his cheeks. He left it up to junior varsity coach Champ Forbes to speak on behalf of the football program.

“No two people grieve the same… some people need a crowd, some people need to be alone. Some people just need a hug,” Forbes said to the more than 500 people who came to the funeral. “No form is incorrect… but we cannot pretend to be okay. We cannot pretend that this does not hurt on a deep level.”

Outside the church, as the pallbearers loaded the casket into the hearse, Nixon took off his sunglasses. His eyes were red from crying.

“I still haven’t processed all this, losing another player,” Nixon said outside the church. “But this was therapeutic in a way. We can at least say goodbye.”

Mervo head football coach Pat NIxon watches his team play Baltimore City College on September 9. The team notched an emotional win one week after Mervo junior running back Jeremiah Brogden was killed

Thomas didn’t attend the funeral. His mother said he got up that morning and said he was exhausted. The kid who helped his mother prepare bodies for viewings and was comfortable around death couldn’t bear to see another teammate in a casket.

“He needed to take care of himself, so I said he didn’t need to go,” she said.

By the fourth quarter of Mervo’s next game, against Patterson High School on September 23, most of the Mervo starters were on the sideline. It was the third blowout win of the season. Thomas got a hold of one of the coaches’ headsets. He bent down some so the coaches wouldn’t notice, and put the headset on. Thomas began mocking Nixon and the coaching staff by pretending to send in plays from the sideline. The Mervo players laughed as their team captain waved his arms up and down like he was signaling plays into the second strong from the sideline. For a team which had been through so much, Thomas’ antics were a welcome reprieve, a moment of cheer in what had been a month filled with so much grief.

“I was just having some fun with my teammates, I just want to keep it loose and remember that football is supposed to be fun,” Thomas said.

Mervo was 3-0, and had only given up six points all year. Now they were headed into the biggest game of the regular season. Dunbar was next.

“It was bigger than football for me.”

Sterling Thomas, Captain of the MErvo Football team

The Dunbar-Mervo game has the energy of a heavyweight boxing title fight. The two best teams in the city draw a crowd of passionate alumni and fans too large for either high school, so they play at a neutral site. This year the game was held at Hughes Stadium at Morgan State University on September 29. Kickoff was at 6 p.m. More than 6,000 people packed both grandstands — Dunbar fans in burgundy and gold on one side, Mervo fans in blue and gold on the opposite side.

“It’s not just another game,” Nixon said. There are the bragging rights that come with beating a team in the same city, beating players you have known since elementary school.

When Dunbar running back Tristen Kenan broke through the Mervo defense late in the fourth quarter to score his second touchdown, a two-point lead grew to 10. At 24-14, and less than five minutes left, a comeback was unlikely. Thomas sat on the bench, and leaned over to one of his teammates. “Good game, you played a good game,” he said. Mervo took the field with about a minute left and drove the field, scoring one last touchdown as the final seconds ticked away. The last score didn’t change the outcome of the game, but the boys from Mervo fought to the end.

After the post-game handshake between the two teams, the Mervo players headed to the bus idling just outside the stadium. Thomas was one of the last players to leave the field. He walked slowly, his gait labored. He had a slight limp. His teammates patted him on the back and one coach told him he played a great game. He said nothing. He kept his helmet on. The Dunbar game stirred so many emotions in him. And he didn’t want anyone to see what he was feeling.

After the loss to Dunbar, the team returned to their locker room at Mervo.

Coach Nixon sat on a Gatorade bucket collecting jerseys. He looked exhausted. The loss stung. But Nixon was proud of how his team fought to the end. “There’s been years where we would have hung our heads and quit, but this team is not like that,” he said.

Mervo lost, but Nixon was a bit relieved. September had been one of the toughest months in his coaching career. He had to attend the funeral of one of his players for the second year in a row. He had to console his players, all teenage boys, all of whom had lost two teammates, two close friends in less than a year. And he had to prepare them for the biggest game of their lives and the letdown of falling short. Now it was behind them.

“It’s over, we get to breathe,” Nixon said. “We are back to just managing football.”

Thomas was one of the last players to walk up the driveway toward the locker room at Mervo. His helmet now off, he yelled to his teammates they needed to be at practice on time and ready to work. There were four more games left in the regular season, and then the playoffs. He stopped briefly to unstrap his shoulder pads.

“My emotions were all over the place, this game was real personal for me,” he said.

He had just played against the same team Elijah Gorham lost his life playing, an opponent Thomas couldn’t play because he was suspended. Thomas hoped to make it up to Elijah Gorham this year, and to honor Jeremiah Brogden. All that weight was on the Mervo team, all that was on the shoulders of a 17-year-old.

“It was bigger than football for me,” Thomas said.

Then he limped into the locker room.

J. Brian Charles was Deputy Editor of Baltimore Beat. Previously, he was a staffer at The Trace, The Hill, Chalkbeat, Governing, and Orange County Register. His work has appeared in Slate, Vox, Wired,...