And then there was a football game
By Cody Stavenhagen
There was a football game Saturday.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys beat the Kansas Jayhawks 58-10 at Boone Pickens Stadium on homecoming.
The game was not a monumental one. The 14th-ranked Cowboys are a good team but likely not great. The Jayhawks, now 0-7, are on track to be possibly the worst in Big 12 history.
It was not important. So let’s start over.
They turned and they heard screams. People, children, objects were in the air. Some said they heard tires screeching. Others claim there was no screech; that damn car kept going.
At least four people were killed and 44 more were injured Saturday at 10:31 a.m. when a Hyundai Elantra sped through a barrier set up for the annual Sea of Orange Parade at Hall of Fame and Main, police said.
Adacia Chambers was driving south on Main when she hit that barrier, ran over an unmanned police motorcycle and crashed into the back of some 50 people at the end of the parade’s route, according to police.
Chambers, 25, was arrested at the scene on a complaint of driving under the influence. Meanwhile, an intersection was covered in debris, lost shoes, an empty stroller.
Tanner Baird, a freshman strategic communications major, was feet away from Chambers’ car when it finally came to a stop at the other end of the intersection. He could have reached out and touched the vehicle that caused the destruction. He remembers hearing a boom, like an amplified T-shirt cannon, then seeing a car barreling toward him.
“There were so many people lying on the ground, and it happened so quickly that we didn’t know what to do,” Baird said. “It literally happened in the blink of an eye. “
Medevac helicopters transported five children and three adults to OU Medical Center and The Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City. Tarps covered two bodies still in the street. Three adults were killed at the scene, and a 2-year-old boy died at OU Medical Center.
An hour and a half later, Stillwater Police Capt. Kyle Gibbs held a press conference to explain the unexplainable. OSU President Burns Hargis took the task of finding the right words to comfort a community. It is a job he is good at because he has the misfortune of doing it before.
“The Oklahoma State Homecoming Parade is one of the most wholesome, happy events in the country,” Hargis said. “To have it fouled like this is a terrible tragedy.”
Baird and his roommate ended up back at Bennett Hall, puzzled to learn time was continuing.
“We were by Bennett carrying on and we were just like, ‘You don’t have a clue. Us being right there, we had a totally different attitude about the day,’” Baird said.
Two hours later, 59,486 OSU faithful headed two blocks west to Boone Pickens Stadium while that intersection sat eerily quiet, taped off from all angles. A few police officers cleaned up the scene as ROTC members told straggling fans to find a different way to the stadium.
There was a tragedy. And then there was a football game.
The massive American flag at the southeast corner of BPS was at half-staff as the Cowboys ran onto the field, gathered to say the Lord’s Prayer and prepared to spend the ensuing three hours sacrificing their bodies to win a game.
David Glidden, a senior wide receiver who has cheered for the Cowboys his entire life, broke the team out of its pregame huddle. A TV broadcast caught his words, profane because sometimes emotion makes such language acceptable if not necessary.
“Here we go baby,” Glidden said. “This is the whole f—ing community right here.”
The game itself felt off, almost wrong. OSU coach Mike Gundy was in a meeting with his assistant coaches when someone looked at their phone and saw the news. The world stopped, if only for a few moments.
“You’re talking defense, you’re talking offense, you’re talking special teams. … When you hear about an incident like that, football is a nonfactor,” Gundy said. “You start calling and find out where your family’s at.”
Hargis and other school administrators discussed the idea of postponing or canceling the game. They decided to move forward but made a concentrated effort to honor the victims.
When the football team went out for The Walk — its traditional march down Hester Street to Boone Pickens Stadium — the pulsating boom of the marching band was missing. The silence only made the emotion more palpable.
“We weren’t allowed to have the music playing and the band and everything, but it showed you that people were still cheering and going crazy,” Glidden said. “You could see the looks in their eyes. The support, it was very emotional for us. … It really helped us kind of regroup.”
Quarterback J.W. Walsh said the day reminded him of four years ago in Ames, Iowa, when the Cowboys played and lost a stunner to Iowa State the same day they learned of a plane crash that killed four members of the OSU family, including women’s basketball coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna.
In 2011, they woke up and heard the news. Saturday, they woke up, went to meetings and heard the news.
“The atmosphere, the mood, it was all pretty similar,” Walsh said.
The community still made its way to the game, perhaps in search of an escape, perhaps longing for camaraderie or perhaps oblivious to the magnitude of what happened.
The somber feeling lingered in the air, but optimism wasn’t absent.
Larry Reece, OSU’s beloved PA announcer who is returning from cancer this season, said before the opening kickoff the community would come together.
“We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again,” Reece bellowed, “because this is OUR HOME, this is OUR FAMILY, this is OUR TEAM.”
The narrative that a football game could make everything better for a few hours is nice, but it isn’t true.
“We really didn’t want to go to the game,” Baird said. “Something like that just made us want to sit down and say how thankful we really are. We ended up going, but it wasn’t the same as going to first couple of games, having all this energy. Our minds were with the families that were impacted by this.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the crowd roared as Ben Grogan kicked off because cheering was part of the plan — come to Stillwater for America’s Greatest Homecoming Celebration, be part of the Walkaround, watch the parade, go to the game and see the Cowboys win.
Not everyone could be so lucky.
“To be honest with you, it wouldn’t have upset me if they would have said we’re not playing today. … It just seemed too soon,” defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “I hope (the game helped). But those people that lost loved ones and those people in the hospital with loved ones who are hanging on could care less right now.”
The Cowboys made easy work of the Jayhawks.
They scored twice in the first quarter on two Walsh touchdown runs, then again early in the second when Miketavius Jones blocked a punt, scooped the ball and ran into the end zone.
OSU took a 35-10 lead into halftime while Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin met with media members to discuss the crash. She talked of the strength of community, of people coming together to lift the car off people it had pinned. She talked of mothers worried about sons and eventually of the same resiliency that got the state through tragedies such as the Oklahoma City Bombing and the May 2013 tornadoes.
“The community itself really came and showed the Oklahoma Spirit, the Oklahoma Standard that we’re so proud of in times of difficulty,” Fallin said.
The contest turned into a certified blowout as the OSU run game looked improved and Walsh became the game’s star in the second half.
Walsh, the team’s backup quarterback, took advantage of his special packages and finished with six carries for 24 yards and three touchdowns and completed five passes in five attempts, adding 68 yards and another two scores.
OSU played well in all three facets of the game and improved to 7-0. Students and alumni got to come together. But it didn’t heal.
This time, football was not a bandage or a rallying point. Football was a game, and one that happened to take place hours after a catastrophe.
“We just did what we did and there were no answers,” Spencer said. “We hurt. We recognize it’s a tragedy, and you play a football game.”