by Andrew Garda
At the beginning of every Montclair High School football game, the Mounties band plays the National Anthem. If an observer takes their eyes off the flag for a minute, and gazes down upon the Montclair sideline, they will see the entire team raise their hands, with four fingers up on each one.
It may not make sense to those on the outside of Mountie football, but for the players, the meaning is deep.
‘The Fours,’ as the players refer to it, represent the number 44, which was worn by Ryne Dougherty.
Dougherty sustained a concussion in mid-September of 2008, but the tough, hard-working player didn’t want to miss time and was able to get his way back on the field in part because he hadn’t had a baseline Impact Test.
Just a few weeks after he returned in October, Dougherty collapsed at Ramsey Football Field in a junior varsity game against Don Bosco.
A few short days later, Dougherty died, a victim of what is termed “second impact syndrome” — when a player is returned to the field too soon after a brain injury and suffers a second one. It can be fatal, and in Dougherty’s case, it tragically was.
Many things have changed in the 10 years since the young Mounties’ death, not the least is national awareness of how to handle brain injuries.
Ask any Mountie though, and you won’t hear about the larger issues. You’ll hear about family, what it means to be a Mountie and what the team owes Doughtery and his legacy.
For senior running back Josh Crawford, it hits especially close to home because his older brother, Landon, was a teammate of Dougherty’s.
“[Landon] was very close to Ryne when they were on the same team,” Crawford said after a recent scrimmage. “So, it was a heartbreaking day to find out a kid died on the football field.”
Crawford knows the story better than most because of his brother. So he makes a special effort to let the younger players know why the team holds up ‘The Fours’ before every game.
“I know the younger kids won’t always understand, because they haven’t been through it,” he said. “But that ‘four’ legacy is something that we will carry on throughout Montclair history forever.”
For Crawford, it means they are honoring a former player who loved the game, worked hard every day to do his best and cared more about his team than himself.
It means thanking him for reminding them what they have.
Crawford feels like Dougherty is a Mounties’ angel on their shoulder, and the symbolic gesture during the Anthem is a way to thank him.
“It’s his legacy we’re carrying on for him,” he said. “Ryne’s watching us every day, he’s protecting us every day while we’re at Woodman, while we’re away, practicing, in games, everything. We’re showing respect for him and thanking him for everything he’s done for us.”
Fellow senior Willie Matthews didn’t know about Dougherty or his legacy before he joined the Mounties. Like many observers, he didn’t understand what the team was doing.
“When I was a freshman, I just did it,” Matthews said. “Because everybody else is doing it, why not do it? The hive mind mentality.”
As he discovered the history behind the gesture, and about Dougherty himself, Matthews began to feel the gesture more deeply.
“As I learned what it was, it meant more to me. I don’t want to just pass on the tradition of doing it, I want to pass on the meaning of it.”
Like Crawford, “The Fours” has taken on a deeper meaning for Matthews.
“It’s grown into something that means togetherness,” Matthews said. “I don’t know the team Ryne played for, I don’t know them personally. But I do know that it brings us together as a family and a football team. It brings us closer together every time we hold those fours up.”
Both Crawford and Matthews said they will continue to raise their hands in honor of Dougherty, even after they’ve hung up their Mounties jerseys at the end of the season. They’ll carry the gesture into college and, if they make it that far, to the NFL.
Matthews said he already holds them up at any sporting event he attends.
“I hold them up every time I hear the national anthem. It doesn’t matter if it’s a football game or a basketball game or a hockey game – I still hold those “Fours” up in respect for Ryne, in respect for the program.”