FITCHBURG — Through the tears, there were smiles.
Through the sadness, small bits of laughter as stories were shared.
The healing process, though in its infancy, had begun in earnest.
While it will certainly be a long time before the emotions calm and some of the sorrow subsides, hundreds of friends, former athletes, colleagues and fellow coaches gathered at Crocker Field on Wednesday evening to start the long journey of mourning the loss of Charlie Raff.
A mainstay on the sidelines of area fields for the past 15 years or so, Raff’s death on Sunday rattled the local high school football community. On Wednesday evening, as a light rain fell upon the historic field, hundreds upon hundreds came together for a candlelight vigil to honor Raff.
Past and present student-athletes from Fitchburg High, Leominster High, North Middlesex Regional and Oakmont Regional paid respect to Raff, who had coached for each of those programs. Coaches he had worked with shared stories, while friends hugged amid tears.
More than a coach, Raff had been an educator and, to many, a mentor off the field.
“He was like my dad. He was just the best person I had ever been around,” said an emotional Markel Pagan, who played for Raff at Fitchburg High. “Any time I ever failed, he was there to pick me up. He’d stop me from doing things I shouldn’t be doing.
“He could light up a room. When no one else was there, he always was.”
Messages were scrawled on poster boards for Raff, while a photo of him coaching for Fitchburg was set up on the stair outside the Crocker Field clubhouse, surrounded by candles.
Ryan DeMar, the former head coach at North Middlesex where Raff served as an assistant last season, called him “a mentor.” Raff coached DeMar at Leominster High, then took him on as a protégé at Oakmont during his time as head coach of the Spartans.
DeMar returned the favor last season in Townsend.
“The skills he taught me as a teenager and even as an adult were huge and they were the messages he shared with all these kids. It’s been great seeing the North Middlesex kids sharing stories and experiences with the Fitchburg kids and seeing how he made an impact on so many,” DeMar said. “You hear the same phrases that he used everywhere he went. ‘I got you. Chin up, chest out.’ He was the type of guy who made every kid on the team feel like they were a star.
“Having been at North Middlesex, I’ve talked to some of those kids and they’d tell me ‘I was third on the depth chart last year, but he gave me a nickname and he’d talk to me and give me advice.’ I think everyone who knew him has a story like that about what an impact he made.”
The impact and memories remain, even as so many are hurting to come to terms with the loss, 2021 Fitchburg High grad Jaeden Velasquez noted. Raff’s legacy, he said, was apparent from the outpouring of support and emotions Wednesday.
“He was a great guy and everybody knows that, but he was the best role model that a lot of these people ever had,” Velasquez said. “He meant a lot to me. He meant a lot to a lot of people. I’m at a loss for words. … We’ll remember what he meant to us.”