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In March 1988, the telephone call was about defensive back Antonio Rogers. Killed in a crash on his way home to Prichard, Ala. In July 1989, the call was about running back Earl Eatman. A crash in Hattiesburg. Now this. Third year in a row. A series of tragedies had not only continued, but multiplied. Three kids at once. Three kids.
The team was supposed to reassemble on Tuesday of last week for the final days of spring practice. The annual Blue and White game was scheduled for last Saturday night at Hughes Field. All of the preparations stopped. There would be no game. The large worries of one day were suddenly insignificant on the next. Life will overrule football every time.
"I hadn't said anything before this vacation, but I made it a point to talk to the team before spring break in March about being careful," Gorden said. "I talked about the things that had happened the past two years. I told a story about myself when I was in college. I was going to summer school. We had a break for the Fourth of July. I came back to class and the desk next to me was empty. I said, 'Hey, where's So-and-So?' I was told, 'Oh, he was in a crash. He died.' Just like that. I told the kids to watch themselves."
A team meeting was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. Dr. Allen began working with players individually and in groups. She saw the trauma played across their faces. She heard their questions that were so hard to answer. Why didn't this happen to me? I could have been with Casey and Charles and Michael. Why did it happen to them? Why has it happened again at Jackson State? Sadness for the dead was merged with guilt for the living.
Dr. Timothy Summers, a local psychiatrist and a graduate of Jackson State, was asked to speak at the team meeting. So was the Reverend Jerry Young from the New Hope Baptist Church. It was best that everyone keep busy, especially during the late afternoon, when practice would have been held. A memorial service was scheduled for Thursday.
"You wanted to take an edge off the grief," Dr. Allen said. "You didn't want to remove grief, because it's a natural thing, but you also wanted to remember some of the good memories. There was too much trauma among too many people. Something had to be done to lake a load off somewhere."
The idea, simply, was to talk and talk. Arc football players allowed to cry? Yes. They cried so much that an assistant coach at the team meeting went to the restroom to bring back some toilet paper. All of the tissues had been used.
A field goal kicker questioned the simple fact of death. How can Casey be dead? He was a good person. I saw him just last week. Talked with him. Ate with him. How can he be dead? A lineman wondered if God were sending a message. Shouldn't we change our ways? A coach wondered about the future. Is it ethical to talk about these tragedies and use them as motivation in the coming season? Is that all right, to try to dedicate yourself to a memory? Or is it cheap?
"I had some questions myself that I couldn't answer," Gorden said. "Why would this happen three years in a row? I sometimes thought about the fact that I was losing two starters from our team. Should I feel guilty about thinking that?"
Casey was remembered as the most pleasant player on the team. He was the ambassador, the locker room peacemaker. His brother, slow to practice some days, had acquired the nickname Big Lazy, so Casey's immediate nickname had been Little Lazy. That didn't last long. Lazy? He told the coaches he was Dr. Jekyll off the field, but became a grim Mr. Hyde once he went to work. His nickname became Gator.