By Jennifer Mayerle

PAYNESVILLE, Minn. (WCCO) — Jacob’s Hope– found its way to a football field in Paynesville, not far from where the 11-year-old’s remains were found earlier this week.

The Paynesville Bulldogs paid tribute to Jacob Wetterling by embracing the jersey number 11 he wore, and the hope it stands for. The community also acknowledged other victims in a meaningful way Friday night.

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Before the game even started, everyone knew it was about so much more than football.

“Jacob Wetterling had dreams of one day being a football player,” the announcer said. “Tonight, our players live out Jacob’s dream on the field.”

As a community came together to watch a Friday night football game, Jacob’s Hope surrounded them.

“Be fair be kind be understanding be honest,” the announcer said.

And in the midst of the Paynesville Bulldog team stood four men shoulder to shoulder.

“We want to honor the victims of sexual abuse and violence,” the announcer said.

Jared Scheierl was one of those men. He was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by the same man who confessed to Jacob’s murder. Jared is largely credited as pushing the investigation forward.

“That’s what this whole journey has kind of done for this town,” he said. “United us in ways that we never dreamed.”

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The men next to him were victims of unsolved sexual assaults in Paynesville in the 1980s, before Jared and Jacob were kidnapped. As part of the ceremony, a booming voice over the stadium read the names of several more of those victims.

Many had never before made their names public, until now.

“It’s something that I will never forget,” Paynesville assault victim Danny Garvick said.

“It felt good. It felt good,” Brad Froelich, another victim, said.

But there’s still something that weighs heavy on their hearts.

“We got to go home. Why didn’t Jacob go home? That was the hardest part,” Troy Cole, another victim, said.

Jared placed stickers with Jacob’s number 11 on the back of each players helmet. It’s how he wanted to end a week full of emotion, and it’s what the team and the town needed to honor Jacob and those unsung heroes.

“If, as a football team, we can do something positive to help people move forward, then that’s what we’re here for,” Paynesville football coach Max Meagher said.

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So the community pledges to move forward in unity. They share in the Wetterlings’ grief, and in that they choose to be generous, to be joyful and to be positive.

Jennifer Mayerle