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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

UF's game against Kentucky may not be the showdown of the season, and 50 years down the road it won't be making anyone's top-10 list.

But for those closest to the Gators football team, it is definitely going to be one of the most memorable.

As the Gators storm Commonwealth Stadium wearing stickers on their helmets in honor of Michael Guilford, I will undoubtedly think of a different lost friend.

When I was a freshman in high school, one of my basketball teammates died suddenly of complications from meningitis.

She had been sick for a couple of weeks with what doctors thought was mononucleosis. She attended school but was advised to hold off on basketball until she recovered.

One day in early December, she collapsed in her bedroom. Nine days later, at age 16, Ashley died in the hospital.

I can't speak for anyone on the UF football team, but I do know what it's like to tragically lose a teammate.

It's not something that fades from memory. I was 15 when Ashley died, and it was the first real experience I ever had with death. I wouldn't be surprised if that's the case for some of these players as well.

Death is always difficult to cope with - even more so when it happens prematurely to someone so young.

I can still remember being called out of my first period typing class and walking to the principal's office, where Ashley's parents and her boyfriend had gathered the basketball team to share the news.

I remember sitting there as her parents explained in detail what Ashley went through in the moments leading up to her death. I remember looking around at the rest of my red, teary-eyed teammates. I remember the hugs her parents gave each of us.

I know the Gators held a memorial service Monday night, and some players attended Guilford's funeral Tuesday. Those events will stay with them years from now, when days at the practice field are long gone and the championships have faded.

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I remember going to Ashley's wake and standing in the line wrapped around the building so I could pay my respects. It was difficult to grasp. Ashley was a fighter and so full of life, and there she was before me, lying peacefully in her No. 33 basketball uniform.

I remember watching my basketball coach and several others carry her casket to the church's altar at her funeral. I remember listening to the poems her closest friends had written for her as part of her eulogy.

As the Gators prepare for their road trip this weekend, a game may seem trivial. But it's important to understand that life must go on, and the ones to help you along the way are your teammates.

The first game without Ashley was a little empty, like something was missing, but we never forgot her. We wore pink ribbons in our hair - her favorite color - and wrote "33" in permanent marker on our white sneakers.

Our team won the conference and district championships that year, but what I remember most about the season is Ashley.

To the Gators: I know some of you are hurting, but it's important to share stories of your friend's life, because that's what keeps his spirit alive.

It's important to embrace the Guilford family and tell your stories to them. Some of you may hold tales that his parents will cherish forever.

As for me, I still have those old, freshman Reebok sneakers in my bedroom closet at home with "33" permanently etched on them. Miss you, Ash.

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