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A Big Win And A Bigger Loss For San Diego’s State Champions

The San Diego City College Knights win the state championship against Fullert...

Credit: David Sanborn

Above: The San Diego City College Knights win the state championship against Fullerton College, March 12, 2017.

In the spring of 2017, the San Diego City College men’s basketball team became state champions when sophomore point guard, Darien McClain, scored the game-winner against Fullerton College. He did it with six dribbles from the opposite end of the court and only 4.1 seconds left until the buzzer. It was a historic win because it was the first time San Diego had ever won the title since the inception of the CCCAA (California Community College Athletic Association) in 1952.

“Never does a play work to perfection like that,” said Coach Mitch Charlens, Head Men’s Basketball Coach at San Diego City College, “I didn’t know he would go coast to coast and score the winning basket.”

The victory was sweet and the team was close-knit. But their story didn’t end with a big win. Though none of them saw it coming, they would soon see a tragedy befall one of their stars. A documentary film about the team would later tell a story that shed new light on the cost of mental illness.

To many, the San Diego City College Knights bringing home the title was a surprise victory. But not to David Pradel. He noticed the team’s brotherly bond early in the season.

Photo by Maya Trabulsi

Coach Mitch Charlens holds the CCAA State Championship trophy in his office at San Diego City College, September 19, 2018.

“This team, in particular, seemed just to have something special as far as being like a brotherhood, and when the cameras weren't rolling and I was just watching with my two eyes, they were the same way and they were focused on winning a state championship, even though in the standings they were not ranked, or they weren't even considered to even be a contender,” Pradel said.

During the season that led to the win, Pradel was a student sports reporter, studying broadcast journalism at San Diego City College. He spent hours documenting daily practice, games, and collecting player and coach interviews for the school program’s newscast, “Newscene.”

“They were so supportive of my photos and my videos that I did, but I think they would all agree that the one player that was always going the extra mile was Nate Edwards,” Pradel said.

The team’s big brother

Player number 24, Nate Edwards, was 24 years old. He was older than his teammates and naturally took on a big brother role.

“He was the guy that was like, ‘Pick your head up. There’s no time to be like that. There’s no time to be down … we’re in this together,’” McClain said.

Edwards regularly prepared food for the coaching staff and teammates, often bringing in plastic containers filled with fish and rice to feed them.

“We're hungry, but Nate comes through with Tupperware. He cooks at home, dishing them out. ‘Here, you need food? Here you go, here you go.’ And next thing you know, he almost became our pregame meal,” McClain said. Edwards extended his caretaking to other teams and even prepared food for the women’s volleyball team.

Pradel said Nate’s caretaking nature was especially touching on one night before a game. Instead of preparing to play, Nate was determined to find Pradel a new Knights basketball T-shirt, because the one he was wearing was old.

“And I’m like, you’re supposed to be with the team. He’s not even dressed, I don’t think he had his basketball shoes or his pads ... he needs to be stretching and warming up, and he’s running around the gym trying to get a hold of a T-shirt for me,” Pradel said. “He’s the person that was always supporting me and making me believe in myself.”

Photo by David Pradel

Nate Edwards is at San Diego City College in this undated photo.

After the 2017 state championship win, the Knights’ players were sought by different colleges and universities around the country, looking to recruit them with basketball scholarships. Darien McClain made his decision to attend Azusa Pacific University and was prepared to sign his letter of intent, making a formal commitment to the school.

Edwards was offered a full scholarship by Western State Colorado University. He visited the school and decided to accept the offer because the school was going to help move his girlfriend Amber Koedyker and their two young children.

Edwards and McClain then made an agreement to sign their letters of intent on the same day.

“We wanted to sign together. We wanted to make sure, if you’re ready to sign, let’s all sign on this day,” McClain said.

They picked a day, April 18th, and sent a text message to the entire team inviting them to share the moment with them in Coach Mitch’s office.

“Sadly, we never got to that point,” McClain said.

The Greatest Loss

On the night of April 17, after a fight with his girlfriend, Nate packed a bag and left the home they shared in East County. He stopped at his neighbor’s house to retrieve a gun being held for him.

“And the neighbor gave it to him because he didn’t know what was up that night,” Koedyker said.

Several hours later, Edwards sent a final text message to his mother in Spring Valley, New York, and CC’d the same message to his girlfriend.

“Basically saying it’s over,” Koedyker said. “He’s going to kill himself, telling his mom to be there for me and the kids.”

Nate Edwards' text message, given to KPBS by his mother

Mom I’m sorry I went on a walk and I feel stronger about it now and I have to I’m sick and with the meds I would need I wound not be myself please just let me rest. I love you mommy I am sorry. I gotta get this shit outta my head no matter what it’s a lose ma you call the cops they kill me I have a fully loaded pistol just let me go on my terms please. Just make sure my boys and brothers know that I loved them more than anything and tell Glenn I hadn’t been mad at him for months he is the reason I turned my life around. Promise to take care of Amber mommy please you guys will need each other.

Edwards shot and killed himself on a basketball court near his home. His letter of intent to play basketball for Western State Colorado University was found in his possession, it was signed.

From an outside perspective, Edwards seemed to have it all: A loving family, superb athletic ability and aspirations of becoming a basketball coach one day.

“That's what's so hard to understand about mental illness is it doesn't make any sense,” said Coach Mitch Charlens, who called Edwards’ suicide a shock to everyone. “There were no signs that any of us saw because he provided the energy.”

“I wouldn't say I've seen, you know, a lot of signs,” Koedyker said. “He's always been … would get really mad sometimes. But it was never anything crazy or out of the norm that I had thought something was up or he would do that.”

Koedyker remembers the week leading up to his death, Edwards was angry and slept on the couch.

“I knew something was up with him, so I was just like, ‘Oh, let’s get you the help you need.’ He was like, ‘No no, it’s too late, it’s too late.’ But at that point, I didn’t really know what he meant by that.”

Edwards’ mother later wrote, “My son did not commit suicide because he did not know there was help. He commited suicide because he was afraid of the stigma that identified him with depression.”

The Documentary

After Edwards died, a promise was made to his family. Now, a year on and a student at San Diego State University, Pradel has made good on his promise to tell Nate’s story by creating a two-part documentary showcasing the team’s road all the way to the state championships and the death of Nate Edwards five weeks later. It took him two months to edit hours of footage he had captured during the Knights’ winning season.

“Every time I would see him on camera it was a whole range of emotions, like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was just hard to see him on camera and know that through his smiles, there is something deeper,” Pradel said.

The documentary, “The City’s Champions,” is linked to a GoFundMe account for Nate’s children, with the goal of raising $24,000 that will go toward a college fund.

Now a junior studying business management at Azusa Pacific University, McClain was recently awarded ‘Player of the Game’ at the BLIA Cup finals in Taiwan. His mother still lives in San Diego, and he drives down often to visit her and former teammates from the Knights team. “Even though we're separated now at our schools, we still have this bond no matter what.” He said the team continues to support one another, including Edwards’ sons.

“Knowing that their future is looked out from 18 people at this point, almost a whole community, San Diego is looking out. So, I feel like what David and the guys are doing is really valuable to our brotherhood,” McClain said.

Suicide Prevention Resources

San Diego Crisis Line: (888) 724-7240

Crisis Text Line: 741-741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (veterans and military personnel press 1)

Warning signs and what to do

A documentary film resurfaces a local championship and the personal tragedy that followed.

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