Collapse of Buffalo Bills player reignites painful memories within Las Vegas High football community

Kris Cinkovich turned on the television to see members of the Buffalo Bills circled around critically injured player Damar Hamlin in prayer. Like many watching “Monday Night Football,” Cinkovich was in complete shock.

His shock, however, hit closer to home.

“My wife came in and she could see it in my eyes. I was hurting,” said Cinkovich, the former Las Vegas High football coach. “When they showed the players kneeling around (Hamlin), I have the vision of our team doing the same thing. It brought back some painful memories.”

Many television announcers, when Hamlin collapsed against the Cincinnati Bengals after suffering cardiac arrest, said they had never seen an incident like this, where a player was close to dying on the field. Hamlin on Wednesday was listed in critical condition at University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s intensive care unit.

The Las Vegas High community is, unfortunately, one of the few to have witnessed a football-related death in their beloved teammate Edward Gomez. Gomez made a jarring tackle against Desert Pines in the 2003 Sunrise Regional championship game, jogged off the field and collapsed on the sideline. Twenty-two hours later at University Medical Center he died from blunt-force trauma.

Las Vegas High School head coach Erick Capetillo poses by a locker kept vacant in memory of Eddie Gomez at the school Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Gomez, a player with the Las Vegas High School football team, died in 2003, two days after suffering a head injury in a playoff game. Capetillo was also a player on the team at the time.

As the television news late Monday shifted from the stadium to the hospital, Cinkovich became more emotional because of the similarities. He remembers standing outside UMC in the freezing cold fall night waiting for an update on Gomez’s condition — Cinkovich always coached in shorts and didn’t have spare clothes with him.

“(The doctor) came by late at night and said there was nothing they could do,” he recalled. “I have never forgotten that and the pain with that.”

When current Las Vegas High coach Erick Capetillo arrived on campus Tuesday, one of the first people he encountered was basketball coach Jason Wilson, who made the comparison of Hamlin’s injury to Gomez’s. Capetillo was a teammate of Gomez’s and Wilson was an assistant coach in the program.

As the day progressed, the number of former teammates and coaches from the tight-knit Wildcat program who messaged Capetillo saying they were thinking of Gomez grew. Some of the men, now in their late 30s, said they broke down in tears watching the coverage of Hamlin’s injury.

The 2003 Wildcats won the Southern Zone championship against Palo Verde eight days after Gomez’s injury, but they were emotionally drained and lost to Reno High in the state championship game. In between the remaining contests they attended Gomez’s funeral and burial service, all while trying to process the unthinkable.

“When you are younger, you don’t deal with a lot of deaths,” said Capetillo, who was a high school sophomore the season Gomez died. “You don’t understand how this can happen to a friend of yours on your team.”

Gomez sets the standard

The 2022 football season is long over, yet one locker appears to still be in use in the Wildcats’ football room. That’s Gomez’s locker, which is retired and mostly unchanged since that night in 2003.

The exception: The locker is decorated with Wildcat-paw stickers that are given to players for a good performance and applied to their helmets. When the team earns a sticker, Gomez’s locker gets one, too.

The same goes for his jersey, No. 21, which is framed in the office. The number is stitched on the team’s jerseys.

A sign above the room’s door reads, “Wildcat 21 Forever” in the school’s colors of red, black and white. A highlight reel of Gomez’s plays is shown for freshmen so they understand “the Wildcat way.”

Gomez, a standout defender and big man on campus, was ineligible for the initial part of his senior season but never missed a practice, film session or team function. He was beloved by his teammates and earned the respect of coaches.

Capetillo remembers walking into Spanish class as an underclassman, nervous because he didn’t know anyone. Gomez noticed and insisted his teammate sat next to him, saying “you are my football teammate. We sit together,” Capetillo said.

“We want our kids to live up to the standard of how Ed played for his teammates and the east side of Las Vegas,” Capetillo added. “He went to practice every day. He legit never missed and was the best scout team player in the state. He put the emphasis on the team getting ready to play, and not himself.”

Wilson has spent more than two decades coaching at Las Vegas, the town’s original high school that opened in 1905 in downtown and moved to east Sahara Avenue in the early 1990s. The school has produced many well-known people, such as baseball great Bryce Harper and former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan.

But it’s Gomez, at least in the football program, who is the standard-bearer.

“He’s the type of kid everyone wants on their team,” Wilson said. “He never complained. He always showed up, and always had a positive attitude and was willing to work. Just a coach’s dream, and on top of that a hell of a player.”

The Gomez tragedy, when Wilson was a young coach in the profession, reaffirmed a valuable lesson: Being a coach is more than what happens in practice and games; it’s about being a lifelong mentor.

Cinkovich, who is recently retired in Las Vegas, frequently runs into former players around town. He also sees their posts on social media. This week, it’s all been about Gomez.

“We, unfortunately, have (Gomez’s death) as part of that bond that we are all going to carry with us forever,” Cinkovich said.

‘We live by 21’

Cinkovich, who went on to coach college football at UNLV, Arkansas and Idaho, returned to town in 2012 for his daughter’s wedding. Each time he returned, one of his first stops was to visit Gomez’s grave at Bunkers Eden Vale Memorial Park.

When Cinkovich walked up to the plot on this random day, he noticed someone else was already there. It was Gomez’s father. The men embraced and started crying.

“That was a gut-checker for me,” Cinkovich said. “That was a powerful day for me.”

Capetillo had a similar encounter in 2017, his first year as head coach. Marlene Gomez, Edward’s daughter, randomly showed up on campus to visit. Girlfriend Kelly Hill gave birth to Marlene six months after her father died.

Teachers and administrators — many of whom were longtime school staffers — stopped what they were doing to greet Marlene. Edward’s mother decided the teenager was old enough to learn about her dad’s legacy and took her to the school, unannounced.

Marlene, then 13, walked into the locker room to see her baby picture taped to the door of the coaches’ office. A photo of her dad in his Wildcats uniform was beside it.

“We live by 21,” Capetillo told the teen.

Many of Gomez’s former teammates feel the same way. While the critical injury to the Bills’ Hamlin pushed the emotions to the front of their minds, many frequently think about their fallen brother. The memory of seeing him collapsed on the sideline hasn’t gone away.

Some also recall his tenacity when overwhelmed at work or dealing with adversity. Many promise to keep fighting to keep his memory alive.

“As Wildcats, if there is adversity, we’ll battle through it together,” Capetillo said. “That’s what being part of this family is about.”

This content was originally published here.

Share this story