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A VOID LEFT UNFILLED A YEAR LATER, LUCAS' DEATH AFFECTING.

Byline: Jill Painter Staff Writer

Avengers trainer Brian Nguyen always is rushing around before football games, taping ankles and wrists, fitting braces and attending to last-minute needs.

Part of his pregame routine includes handing out Breathe Right strips that some players wear on their noses to help breathe easier. When the Avengers play at the Utah Blaze today, he'll hand several out, then take the smallest remaining one and attach it to an empty locker.

This is when he remembers Al Lucas.

Lucas, 26, died from blunt-force trauma to the spinal cord while trying to make a tackle for the Avengers in an Arena League Football game last season against the New York Dragons at Staples Center. Monday marks the one-year anniversary of his death.

Lucas' untimely death was tragic, but the big lineman with the big smile won't be forgotten. Scholarships, baseball fields and a retired jersey will ensure that.

"It's kind of hard that a kid that young was doing what he loved to do and died," said David Lucas, Al's father. "You can't wallow in it. He's gone. You can't replace him."

But David figured he could help other kids like his son, who volunteered his time as a coach at Northeast High in Georgia, where he grew up. So, David started a college scholarship fund for local teenagers. On April 26, the Lucas family will help honor their son at a banquet in Macon, Ga., in which six high school student-athletes receive college scholarships. AFL commissioner David Baker will be the keynote speaker.

They'll once again be celebrating Lucas' life.

"I never thought I'd be giving a eulogy following Jesse Jackson," Baker said of Lucas' funeral last year. "It was a great victory in the way that everyone took care of everyone else. I truly think Al's family cared as much about us and the game as we did about them. His dad was absolutely insistent that we play the following weekend. As big as I am, I think he would've kicked my tail if we didn't.

"It was a great reminder that it is just a game."

After the banquet, David will continue his work to try to get an AFL game in Macon next year. The AFL is agreeable to the idea, but the details have yet to be worked out.

On Saturday, the family was scheduled to gather at the Little League field in Macon where Lucas played baseball. Lucas was a big, strong boy but athletic enough to play baseball and basketball, as well as football. The field was renamed Al Lucas Field.

Al's wife, De'Shonda Lucas, 28, who is on the committee to determine recpients of the Lucas scholarships, has been busy sifting through applications. Not one of the applicants had a grade-point average below 3.4.

It has been a tough road, but with nearly all of her family and Al's family within a five-mile radius in Macon, she has had plenty of support. And then there's Avengers lineman Silas Demary, who was a good friend of Al's.

"People like Silas call on the days I need to hear him the most," she said. "And (Silas') wife, Shante, when she goes out (to Los Angeles), she'll call me to see if I can go so we can see each other. Silas is like my big brother. I know it's hard for him too, even more so that the team isn't doing as well. I know he plays with his heart."

De'Shonda also said she's thankful for the supportive e-mails she still receives from Avengers fans, who like to check in on the family.

De'Shonda recently started a group called "Widows of Purpose." She and other local women who have lost their husbands gather each week to talk. Once a month they volunteer their services at a different place. De'Shonda said helping others helps her.

The Lucas family went to the Avengers' game against Chicago at Staples Center in February, the first time they returned there since Lucas died. They watched as Lucas' No. 76 jersey was retired.

The relationship between Lucas' family and the team remains strong. The Avengers have contributed to the scholarship fund as well as the Al Lucas Trust Fund, which will enable Lucas' 3-year-old daughter, Mariah, to go to college.

"Hopefully, it creates a legacy for Al Lucas and that its affects are far beyond his family and friends and far beyond his generation," said Casey Wasserman, the Avengers' owner. "Hopefully, it will let people know what kind of person he was and all the things that made Al Lucas who he was."

Avengers receiver Greg Hopkins remembered Lucas for his big arms and engaging personality. He laughs every time someone says "dirtbag," one of Lucas' favorite phrases. And he thought of him again March 20. Hopkins' hit against Colorado's Andy McCullough knocked him out. McCullough was put on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital.

Hopkins called the hospital following the game and learned that McCullough was OK. He suffered a minor neck injury.

"You don't think about it every day because you don't see those injuries every day," Hopkins said. "It sets off a different alarm inside. When you've seen the worst-case scenario, you're a lot more concerned."

Lucas was put on a stretcher, too. He lay motionless and never regained consciousness. His teammates gathered in a huddle and prayed.

Demary was so disturbed by McCullough's injury that he had to walk away while trainers tended to him.

For Demary, Lucas' death still is tough to deal with. He thinks about him every day. His practice shoes have "RIP, No. 76" on the top of the shoes. Every time he looks down, he sees it. He has "No. 76" on his game- day shoes, too.

"It made me realize we can't live forever, no matter how big or strong we are," Demary said. "It also made me respect the game more. I'm still kind of dealing with it. I'm having probably one of the worst seasons I've ever had."

And what would Lucas tell him, if he were still here?

"He'd probably be right there with me, telling me to get myself together and play the game the way I know how. Don't worry about what happens and don't worry about the past."

jill.painter@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3615

CAPTION(S):

3 photo

Photo:

(1 -- color) Avengers players wear Al Lucas' No. 76 on their helmets, in honor of the lineman who died during an Arena Football League game last year.

Edna T. Simpson/Daily News

(2 -- color) Al Lucas, right, shown talking to line coach Bill Dobson last year.

Photo courtesy of Avengers

(3) Family members of Al Lucas, the Avengers' lineman who died during a game, are still coming to grips with his passing.

Associated press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 9, 2006
Words:1135
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