At Loyola, a brother's touching tribute

Lacrosse: Six years to the day after his brother Gerry's death, Joey Case wore No. 9 in his honor and took another step in the healing process.

March 29, 2003|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Joey Case tried to prepare as if it were just another college lacrosse game, but there were reminders everywhere that suggested differently.

Hanging in his locker was a never-worn Loyola home jersey, adorned with the No. 9, not his usual No. 8.

Then there was the pre-game phone call to his mother, a gesture that Effie Case expected out of her two sons, but this one was different. Joey, usually a substitute attackman or midfielder, learned earlier that morning that he was going to start against Brown.

An emotional Effie Case told her son that she wasn't sure she could summon the strength to go to the game at all.

On March 22, 1997, Gerry Case, a promising 19-year-old freshman fulfilling his dream by playing lacrosse at Loyola, died suddenly from a meningitis-related blood infection.

Exactly six years later to the day, Gerry's younger brother and best friend was about to leave the Greyhounds' locker room to join his teammates. As he does before every game or practice, Joey touched his brother's jersey, which is framed on the locker room wall as a memorial.

"I realized our first goal was to win the game," Joey said. "I focused my thoughts toward the game and the 44 other guys on the team and realized that I couldn't put myself before them."

It didn't matter. Everybody, especially the handful of teammates who had approached coach Bill Dirrigl during the week to offer their starting spots, knew this was Joey Case's day.

Wearing the number that was retired in his older brother's honor, the senior started and scored the first goal of Loyola's 16-8 win over the Bears at Curley Field.

"Joey's best friend was Gerry, and Gerry loved Joey," said Dirrigl, an assistant in 1996 who recruited Gerry, an All-Metro attackman from Broadneck.

"For Joey to score the first goal in the position where Gerry would have been for four years, you'd have to think someone was looking out for that situation and allowed it to happen."

Before the game, Effie was given a note from Joey. His message: "Try to smile and enjoy the last time any Loyola player will wear No. 9."

"When I saw my son walk on the field wearing No. 9, that made a statement that he was very proud of Gerry and of himself," Effie said. "That gave me the strength I needed to say this is a good day, and good days are rare for me. I have one son in heaven and the other playing lacrosse."

Joey Case was 16 when Gerry died three days after recording his first collegiate goal and assist for Loyola.

Now a reflective, self-assured 22-year-old, who will graduate in May with a degree in business administration, Case has leaned on lacrosse, a game he learned from his older brother, for help in the healing process.

"Early in high school, it helped me a lot," said Case, who is Broadneck's all-time leading scorer with 101 goals and 95 assists. Gerry is second. "Getting on the field at first was an escape because it got my mind off of it."

When he was a sophomore at the Cape St. Claire school, Joey wore his brother's Loyola socks for every game and that season ended with the Bruins winning their second straight Class 3A-4A state title after Case assisted on the game-winning and perhaps symbolic, ninth goal.

The year before, it was Gerry, then a senior, who scored the game-winning goal in the state title game. Joey was a freshman on that team.

Said Joey: "I'm glad I got that one year to play with him."

"When you define love and talk about brothers, you talk about Gerry and Joey Case," said Broadneck coach Clay White. "They couldn't have been any closer."

While Gerry was the star athlete and more outgoing, Joey was more conservative and serious about his studies. On the field, he relied more on brains and hard work than talent.

When it came time for Joey to pick a college, some said it might be best to steer clear of Loyola, the school Gerry had his heart set on since seventh grade. Joey had always wanted to go to Brown.

However, Joey felt a connection with Loyola coach Dave Cottle and Dirrigl, both of whom never left his family's side while Gerry was in the hospital.

"My parents and I decided that we didn't want Gerry to be the main factor, but of course it was always there," Joey said. "I wanted to live out his dream as well as mine."

By the end of his sophomore season, Case had worked his way onto the second midfield before having a solid nine-goal, seven-assist junior season.

This year, he has filled numerous roles for the No. 8 Greyhounds (5-1), who play Charles Street rival Towson today at 1 p.m. in the Channel 2 Game of the Week. Case has four goals and one assist, while shuttling between midfield and attack. Dirrigl called Joey (5 feet 10, 180 pounds) an instinctive and intelligent player, who has done great things for Loyola.

Gerry Case Sr. is just as proud of the strides that his son, who carries a 3.1 grade-point average and had an internship with Legg Mason last summer, has made off the field.

"He matured very quickly," Gerry Sr. said. "He's his own person, but there will always be a piece of his brother with him."

It was Dirrigl who first approached Joey last week about wearing Gerry's number.

"Gerry Case was the first big-time player that wanted Loyola College," Dirrigl said. "He dreamed of playing here and taking us to a national championship and I really believe he would have. ... With Joey wearing his number, it was a way for me to get Gerry on the field one more time."

For the Case family, it was another step in the healing process.

"I'd be lying if I said I don't think about it, but my life is used to being without my brother now," Joey said. "It's unfortunate, but it's the way I have to live and the tributes are the way of him still being here with me."

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