Football season kicks off at Winona State Thursday, but it's with a bit of a heavy heart for athletes and coaches.
Last month, 22-year-old Shawn Afryl collapsed and died on the field about 20 minutes into a voluntary workout. Medical staff and coaches tried CPR, but were unsuccessful.
The Warriors are looking to use Shawn's memory as motivation this season.
Afryl spent three season at the University of Illinois where he graduated with a degree in political science last year. He came to Winona State to be a defensive linemen and pursue a degree in education to be a social studies teacher.
Afryl was only around the team for a few short weeks, but he made quite an impression, which the Warriors have rallied around to kick off their season.
Maxwell Field will never be the same. Nor will any of the players on the Winona State Football team.
"That was--for the guys that experienced it was just such a huge tragedy on our team, but at the end of the day it kind of brought us closer together," running back Theo Burkett said.
Even though Afryl isn't physically on the field for the first practice of the season, he will always be on the field with his teammates.
"He's going to play a huge role in this season even though he's left us he's going to be a huge part of this season for the Winona State Warriors," linebacker Ryan Gerts said.
"It's going to be a motivation that I feel like no other team has," Burkett said.
Head coach Tom Sawyer says the season begins with a bit of an empty feeling. He said Thursday's practice is a time for the team to reflect and talk about Afryl. It's also a time to begin paying tribute to his memory.
"Just like Shawn would want to be, we want to get out and get going. We'll think about it, we'll make homage to it, but the most important part is to know what he would really want and that's he'd want these guys out doing everything they can to be the best football player they can be," Sawyer said.
"The loss of a loved one or teammate, which is a loved one, everyone is going to handle that and process that a little bit different, but it's difficult," athletic director Eric Schoh said.
"He is always going to be in our hearts, he is always going to be one of our guys, once a Warrior, always a Warrior," Gerts said.
Schoh said Afryl's family has started the Shawn Patrick Afryl #56 Shoe Fund, which will donate athletic shoes for under privileged high school athletes. Growing up his family didn't always have enough money for new football cleats so Afryl wore old ones for many years. When he played at Illinois, when he got new shoes with the team, he would keep his old ones and give the new ones to kids in his home community.
Winona State University will be honoring Afryl's family at their first home game of the season Sept. 13. There will also be a moment of silence held at the team's season opener at Northern State in Aberdeen, South Dakota Sept. 4.