Some of Malik Jackson's best conversations happen in the car.
When he's driving alone.
The Antioch senior and defensive lineman for the football team uses that time to talk to his "brother."
"I used to have Joel in my passenger seat all the time," Jackson said. "So when I get in the car, I look over and just start talking to him.
"We used to talk about girls and sports and family stuff. We spent a lot of time together. We were very close. We were like brothers."
Jackson lost his "brother," Joel Wittkamp, in a car accident on a cold, damp night last February. Wittkamp's vehicle left a winding country road just north of Antioch and slammed into a tree. The crash killed Wittkamp, 16, and his girlfriend Ashley Seay, a 17-year-old student at Lakes.
"I actually heard all the sirens that night from the ambulances and everything," Jackson said. "When I woke up the next day, I had all these texts from friends asking me if I had heard what happened, telling me that they were sorry.
"When I finally figured out what happened, I couldn't stop crying."
Jackson sought out his mother for comfort. Then he reached out to his teammates, who shared in his gut-wrenching grief.
Wittkamp was also on the football team. A small but hard-working 5-foot-9, 159-pound defensive back, he was well-liked and popular with his teammates. He was hoping to get more playing time this fall as an experienced senior.
But sadly, the reason Wittkamp's No. 30 jersey is now making it onto the field is because one of his teammates wears it during every game in his honor.
That's one of several tributes the Sequoits are making to Wittkamp this season. They have also dedicated the entire season to him. They are wearing black and white decals on their helmets that include his number and initials, and they made a presentation to his parents a few weeks ago on senior night.
"I think Joel would really like what we're doing for him. He would be happy to see everyone remembering him in a really nice way," said Antioch senior Patrick Krause, who grew up playing Little League baseball with Wittkamp and is a defensive back just like Wittkamp was. "He would think it's really cool that we're taking turns wearing his jersey."
One senior gets to wear Wittkamp's No. 30 jersey during each game this season. Since there are more seniors than games, the seniors also take turns wearing the jersey to school.
"Whoever wears the No. 30 jersey (on game day) also gets to lead us out on the field when we all run out there together," Jackson said. "We wanted it that way because we want Joel to know that everyone's thinking of him and that he's leading us onto the field."
Added Krause: "Everyone takes wearing the jersey very seriously. It's like you're on your best behavior when you wear it because you don't want to disrespect Joel, or disappoint him."
The jersey that the Sequoits share in Wittkamp's honor is not Wittkamp's actual game jersey. Both of those, the dark red home jersey and the white road jersey, were presented to his mother Amber, his father Bill and his step-mother Sarah on senior night, when the Sequoits hosted Glenbard South.
"It was very emotional to see Joel's parents there. It was tough," Antioch coach Brian Glashagel said. "There were a lot of people crying.
"Joel was more of a role player for us. He got on special teams a little bit and he was a back-up. But he worked his butt off and he was getting better. He was a great teammate and he loved the social aspect of football. He was one of those kids you just love having on the team."
Knowing how devastating the news about Wittkamp would be to his players, Glashagel assembled the entire team the day after the accident so that the coaches and school administrators could answer questions and help the players deal with their grief.
The Sequoits also then attended Wittkamp's funeral together.
"I remember right around that time, me and a couple of other players got together and just talked about our memories of Joel," said Krause, who met Wittkamp when they were both 6 or 7 years old. His family took Wittkamp on some of their vacations.
"It was hard, but we also laughed and smiled because we have so many good memories of Joel. He always had a smile on his face and he always had a funny story or a joke for any situation. I miss that."
Krause says he tries to remember all the things he loved about Joel every day, and especially before games.
"Before each game, we get together as a team and pray and Joel is always on my mind when we do that," Krause said. "I think it's that way for a lot of guys. I think that has shaped our football team this year."
Without a doubt, Wittkamp's life and death have shaped the Sequoits in many ways. Both Jackson and Krause say they are much more careful drivers than they used to be.
And neither wants to let a day pass without fully appreciating every part of it.
"At first, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to deal with this and move on," Jackson said. "But now that some time has passed, we've all had a chance to think about all the important things in our lives and that we should be thankful for them.
"Every time we wear that No. 30 jersey or every time someone points up at the sky to Joel when we score or do something good during a game, that's what we can focus on."
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