The football season was a disappointment. "The team was in a lot of close games, but there was no leadership," Luitjens says of the Wildcats. "With Derek at quarterback they might have been 7-1 instead of 1-7."
Paige, having started the season as a wide receiver, ended up the starting quarterback. He wore his brother's number 11. He wasn't trying to be Derek. He was trying to honor him, to keep his memory alive. It wasn't so hard in football, which wasn't his brother's favorite sport, but when Paige announced that he also wanted to wear Derek's number in basketball (24 at home and 25 on the road), it caused soul-searching. Fred advised against it. So did Luitjens. Too much pressure to put on a freshman. But Paige, who seemed to have turned into a man overnight, brought others around to his thinking. "To me, it was a way of letting Derek live on, instead of putting the jersey in retirement," he says. "I still talk to him at night, tell him what's going on, mostly to make me feel better. He's up there and listening."
The first game of the basketball season, on Dec. 11, was the hardest. During the national anthem Marilyn found herself looking at the line of Custer players, noticing that none was flexing his knees the way Derek did to keep warm. Fred began sobbing, which tore at Paige's heartstrings. Tough way to make your first varsity start. Paige did O.K., though, pulling down 10 rebounds and leading the Wildcats with 12 points. But Custer was beaten soundly by Gillette ( Wyo.) High, which left the Wildcats players and coaches with the nagging question: What if Derek had been out there?
"Derek had the ball in his hands 75 percent of the time," Luitjens says. "He was totally unselfish, but he controlled the game. None of these guys has ever done that, and we need someone to say, 'I'm the man.' They're trying to find an identity."
That and a reason to play and practice with the conviction that a winning program demands, to play as Derek would have had them play, infused with a blind faith that the team was striving toward something significant. "Last spring, I thought the worst thing that could happen in my life was if I didn't win the state tournament as a senior," says Berger. "Then I got that call on July 30. Now I realize that as long as I've worked hard to be successful and have enjoyed it, if we don't make it, it's not important in the big picture of things. I'll accept what happens."
Time is the only real medicine for this deep and abiding pain, but sport has a role in the healing process. When the Lakota Nation Tournament started on Dec. 15, the Wildcats were 0-1 and their season was in danger of spiralling out of control. But the team responded by winning its first two tournament games to advance to the semifinals. Paige led the Wildcats in scoring both times and began to emerge as their leader. "After the first game the coach told us, 'Derek's not going to be here, so don't look for him,' " Paige recalls. "It was the truth, and as much as I didn't want it to be the truth, I had to accept that and step up, since I was the closest thing to him."
He picked up his brother's torch, which was burning brightly in the hearts of the 6,000 fans and participants who gathered in the Rushmore Civic Center on the night of Dec. 17. Derek, all-tournament in 1998, had been admired in the Lakota community for his unselfish play and his sportsmanship. His death had inspired the tournament organizers to begin a ceremonial Wiping of the Tears tradition to honor former participants who had died during the year.
Before the night's Grand Entry of the players, cheerleaders and game officials, four families, including the Paulsens and the Wahlstroms, were seated on the court and solemnly presented star quilts sewn in the memory of their lost children. Then the Wiping of the Tears, a centuries-old sacred rite, unfolded. Drumbeats filled the gym. Indians in ceremonial headdress, leather pants and moccasins danced and sang soul-fully in the darkened hall. Out of the shadows an elder emerged to pass a platter of burning sweet grass before the grieving families, fanning the smoke into the parents' faces with the wing of a hawk. According to Lakota tradition, through this they could smell the spirits of their lost children. They ate dried berries and meat to feed the souls of the departed loved ones and sipped cherry juice and water to quench the loved ones' thirst. As the dance continued, the players and coaches of the 16 teams filed in, ever so slowly, shaking the hands of the family members, hugging them, wetting their cheeks with tears. On and on the dance continued, a serpentine chain of players, Lakotas, cheerleaders and tournament officials circling the arena to the beating of the drums, the lyrics of a song recalling the anguished cries of all vanished peoples.
The Custer players, wearing their uniforms, danced too. Every one of them cried. Paige, wrapped in the quilt, shook the hands of well-wishers for more than an hour. His father wept beside him. The Wildcats' semifinal game was to begin immediately after the ceremony, and Paige leaned forward and, through reddened eyes, said to Wahlstrom, "I hope the team doesn't fall apart after this."
She forced herself to smile. This young man had grown up right in front of her. "That sort of depends upon you," she said.