Charlotte FC's squad returned to training for the first time since Anton Walkes's tragic passing. Head coach Christian Lattanzio makes it point to refer to Walkes in present tense because he believes in spirit he's very much alive and present in training sessions. That his memory infuses the team with energy and not the other way around.
"As we said in the ceremony, in honor of Anton, I promised to Anton and his family that we will always keep him always in our memories... Anton would be the first one that doesn't want us to be down or be quiet like his dad told me. His dad told me many stories of when he was a kid full of energy and that he would be the first one to want us to move on, like we are doing with him, for him, as well as for the Club, the supporters, and our selves.
"With Anton on our mind everyday it gives us energy and not anything negative that people might think. He's just a very positive presence in our everyday life."
There is no playbook on how to cope with the unexpected death of a teammate. It's something that the team is still learning to adjust to but have had professional help at their disposal guiding them along the way. In combination with that, Lattanzio credits the group's commitment of sticking together and loving each other as the glue that has kept them from falling apart.
"We had a lot of help and support from professionals in the field who came around to give us support and help if needed. It was available to everybody. The Panthers and MLS also helped. Our owner Mr. Tepper was extremely understanding and supportive so anything we needed was at our disposal.
"Everybody was really together to give us strength in a moment where it would have been easy to lose our heads and emotions. But staying together was the best thing to do, we stuck together, and everybody played a very important part. Everyone at the football club was extremely helpful and successful in helping and supporting people. If we could go through that it's because of the commitment and love that everyone put in.
"So I am very proud to be a part of Charlotte FC, without a shadow of a doubt."
Someone who demonstrated that same love and support despite practically being a stranger is new signing Enzo Copetti. He had just arrived in the United States but made it immediately clear that he wanted to attend Walkes's Celebration of Life to support his new teammates.
"He could have easily not been present but he wanted to be present with the team. He expressed this directly to us so we actually delayed part of his medical because Enzo wanted to be a part of the team. He knew being a football player how much the team can be effected and he wanted to show his support to his new family."
Looking ahead the team feels they have a responsibility to carry on Walkes's legacy in their play this season but that Walkes continues to give them strength and something more that Lattanzio can't explain.
"The legacy of Anton, in a sporting way, is in our hands. It's up to us, it's our responsibility. We want to come back stronger than before because we have Anton with us. It is something that we are organically getting used to it even though in a way you never do but I believe Anton is giving something more to us individually and collectively. I can feel it... I don't know how to explain something like this, but I can feel it."
"We want to come back stronger than before because we have Anton with us" | Christian Lattanzio Preseason Press Conference