When a Mammoth Goes Down

Kikinda Mammoths, Serbia
One drop. Then another one. Then a third one. It wasn't sweat, despite it was a sports event. It wasn't rain, despite it was a cloudy day. It was a tear. Tears. Of whole team. Whole town. Of whole country. It was a special moment in time when everything stops. His heartbeat has stopped, too. And this was a response. From the heart.
In biggest fire in history of Serbian nightclubs, fire that took six lives, one was his girlfriend's. She was in the toilet when sparks under the stage started the catastrophe. Whole nightclub was on the fire very soon, and five people have stayed trapped in the toilet. He wasn't, but he didn't want to leave her. Fighting through the smoke and stampede of several hundreds of those who were in panic while fighting for their lives, he started to run toward them. "Contrast". That was the nightclubs' name. Contrast. That was his choice. To run all over the blocks, like he used to do in all those trainings. To help his team-mate. His life-mate this time.

Renato was his name. Young, 21-year-old defensive end of one of youngest Serbian American football clubs, "Mammoths" from the small town of Kikinda. Slant here. Twist there. Rip. Swim. Bullrush. He didn't want to hear his friend's cry from the outside "Renato, don't go back!". He was a Mammoth. And his small herd of two was in danger. Life one.

All of his efforts were successful until he reached the goal. The door was blocked. Old building has started to collapse right there, in front of him and his beloved one. There wasn't fresh air anymore. Just fire and smoke. He knew it was all over for those five behind the door, but he still tried. And tried. And when his lungs started to explode, he was still trying. His last run was toward the main door. And right there, yard before it, he fell down. Last gasp. Last breath. But there was no air anymore.

Renato Vukovic died one yard from the main door. One yard. He died while trying to save lives of his friends. His girlfriend. He was Mammoth. Young one, but real one. And Mammoths play not for their own, but for beloved ones. For their herd.

It was Sunday, April 1. Not a Fool's day in Serbia this time. Six lives vanished, and his team... They, as whole country, stayed in shock.

Day before the catastrophe, Mammoths should have played against Sremska Mitrovica Legionaries, oldest, 10-year-old club of American football in Serbia. Renato was new starter in the team that got football pads less than two years ago. He planned all: trip to Sremska Mitrovica, then to near-by city of Sabac, to spend a weekend with a friend. But, that game wasn't about to be played.

Due to huge protests, all of northern Serbia roads were blocked days before the scheduled event. So, the game has to be called off, and Renato called off his trip to Sabac. He stayed in Novi Sad, where he studied, and decided to have fun there. At Contrast.

One week has passed after he passed away. Mammoths didn't have a single training. Instead of that, they were at funeral. And then, on the following weekend, they were about to play against much experienced team, Sombor Celtis, one of favorites to go back to Superleague.

Sunday, April 8. Kikinda, town of 30.000 citizens, was still in mourning. And Celtis have come to took what's theirs. Another victory in 1st League, win against inexperienced, shocked, and team that's just on the beginning of their road.

First drive, and it was a touchdown for the visitors. Second drive, another one. Branko Radosevic as quarterback connected both times with great tight end Predrag Mandic, who was fourth in Serbian Superleague's MVP race two years ago. And there was no help from the sidelines for underdogs. Instead of Renato, it was his mother on the Mammoth's bench. And his family. Large photo of him, candles and two crossed roses.

First touchdown of Renato's team-mates, scored by Aleksandar Acimov, was enough for applause of several hundreds who came to watch the game. But, when he came to the sideline and kissed the photo - everything has stopped. Then ovations has started, despite it was clear that underdogs can't win this game.

It was 14-37 at the half-time. As expected. But, something wasn't expected to be seen at the field. Next to it.

"Are you okay?", asked one of Mammoths his team-mate who used half-time to sit next to the big Renato's photo.

"Yeah. I'm okay. Just speaking with our brother. I know his watching all of this from the above, but still, we don't want him not to smile during our game, right?", was the answer.

And, Mammoths made their passed young lineman smile again. They won the second half 14-7.

One drop. Then another one. Then a third one. It wasn't sweat, despite it was a sports event. It wasn't rain, despite it was a cloudy day. It was a tear. Tears. Of whole team. Whole town. Of whole country. It was a special moment in time when everything stops. His heartbeat has stopped, too. And this was a response. From the heart.


Darko Nikolic
TAG