A football team in Florida is mourning the loss of Sophia Delott, 17, who was killed by a suspected drunk driver on Friday, June 28.
"We had practice on Thursday morning," said team coach Chris Miller. "Sophie was the last one to leave. I told her I'd see her next week. And then I got a phone call Saturday morning, about 6:00 in the morning, from our head basketball coach, who told me Sophie had been killed by a drunk driver."
Sergeant Spencer Gross, of the Pinellas County Police Department, confirmed that Delott had been riding her bicycle in a designated lane when she was hit by Neil Singhal, 69, whose 2014 BMW veered across the road and hit her. She was transported to the hospital and pronounced deceased a few hours later. Singhal was not injured, but showed signs of impairment at the scene and was transported to the Pinellas County Jail, police said, where he remains on a $200,000 bond.
"It really is more than just our team," said Miller. "It's our whole school, our entire community."
Miller said that once he heard about the situation, he invited all of the team players to the team's fieldhouse.
"My wife was the one who (suggested it)," he said. "She said 'As soon as the kids wake up and everybody hears, they're gonna need somewhere to go.' So that's what I did. Basically the whole team showed up. It was a lot of sadness, a lot of grieving. We hung up her jersey in her locker; kids brought flowers."
Remembering a community figure
Delott first became famous within the community when she joined the boy's football team a few years ago, even though she never wanted to make a fuss about her role on the team.
"She didn't (join the team) to gain any recognition or anything, she just wanted to play football," said Miller, who said that Delott had "very quietly" asked him if she could be a part of the team. "She didn't want to be treated any different — so we didn't. She was treated like anybody else in spring football."
Miller said that Delott, who played safety, was a great player on the team, one who never complained or missed a practice. One day, she asked if she could miss a practice the next day — because she had a Marine Corps swearing-in ceremony.
"I had no idea that she had joined the Marines. I had no clue," said Miller. "She didn't tell anybody what she was doing; she didn't want anybody to know. It was the same thing as her being a female football player: She didn't want the recognition, the publicity. She was just very humble, very quiet about it, and it blew me away."
"I was like, you know, here's this little girl, I mean, she's five-foot-six and weighs about 100 pounds, she's out here playing football with 16, 17, 18 year old young men, and not only has she joined the Marines, but she's already gone through all the physical litmus tests, and she's got her actual swearing-in ceremony, and that's why she's going to miss practice."
Miller arranged for a brief celebration after an upcoming practice; a sweet Twitter video shows the boys on the team embracing and raising up Delott after the announcement was made.
A funeral for Delott will be held on Friday, July 5. Miller said that the team and school are planning to honor her as well, though they don't have any details yet. A team pool party that had been planned for July 1 became a team celebration of Delott's life, as her teammates shared stories and remembered her life.
"She had already become very popular in the community, and then this happened," Miller said. "She really was an amazing person."
Staying safe on the roads
July is the most dangerous month for drunk-driving fatalities, and while Delott had been doing everything correct to keep herself safe — she was driving in a bike lane, and her bike had the legally mandated front and rear lights — people should be cautious while riding or walking alongside busy roads, especially during the holiday weekend.
"This could have been avoided, obviously, had Mr. Singhal not been drinking and had not been impaired at the time of the crash," said Gross, who noted that the county's warm weather and sunny beaches led to an increase in tourist and pedestrian foot traffic. "If someone's impaired, it's hard to avoid something tragic like this."
Gross said that while there are many efforts made to find and arrest drunk or impaired drivers, they are unable to prevent every tragedy.
"This time of year, we have to really stay on top of it, and educate and enforce," he explained. "It's not going to prevent everything, unfortunately."
"We ask that everyone take personal responsibility this July 4 — and always — by making a plan before you go out if your plans include alcohol," said Helen Witty, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in a press release. "Don’t wait until the festivities have begun. Know how you are going to get home safely by designating a non-drinking driver, using a ridshare app, taking public transportation, or calling a taxi."