Photo courtesy David Pyke/University of North Texas

When death touches a team, grief follows no playbook

COACHES LIKE TO THINK they can prepare for anything. Trick plays, injuries, weird weather — they know how to react.

But no one game plans for the sudden, unexpected death of a student-athlete. There's no playbook, no film-room study that can make it easier.

For Lafayette, nearly three months after the death of senior tight end Brian Keller from injuries suffered in a car accident, autumn’s arrival brings hope for change.

Keller was popular, a good football player who carried a 3.3 GPA in mechanical engineering. The prototypical BMOC was even larger than life at a school with an enrollment of less than 3,000. He caught two passes in his final game, a Leopards victory over Lehigh at Yankee Stadium.

“Within 48 hours of him passing, we said, ‘It’s not going to be a thing where we’re going to win this for Brian,’” said head coach Frank Taviani, who’s coached at Lafayette for 29 years. “We want to utilize the energy and spirit and the attitude that he brought every day to practice, every day in season and every day out of season, and let the pieces fall where they may.

“I don’t think we’re winning for anyone, we’re dedicating our effort.”

It’s the only part of the emotional recovery Taviani has been sure of. He says Keller’s teammates are still breaking down in tears, surrounded by his absence. The seniors wanted to hang a No. 80 game jersey with a helmet in Keller’s locker, and bring his equipment bag to a road game in Delaware. In 39 years of coaching, Taviani has never had to deal with the death of a player on a roster.

“I didn’t have a game plan for this one,” said Taviani, who has been Lafayette's head coach for 16 years. “I had to figure this one out as we went.”

MEN AND WOMEN WHO COACH college athletes are expected to be surrogate parents , teachers, role models and friends. This past summer Taviani and Wofford men’s basketball coach Mike Young and North Texas women’s basketball coach Jalie Mitchell also had to be grief counselors, with little to no training. Last month, Eastern Kentucky's football team dealt with the loss of freshman defensive lineman Joey Kraemer in a car accident.

Mitchell’s team lost a key player and friend when redshirt sophomore forward Eboniey Jeter committed suicide in her dorm room last May. Young’s squad remains devastated by the June drowning death of reserve Jeremiah Tate.

Tate was a walk-on who played in 13 games in his two seasons, including some time in an NCAA Tournament game against Michigan last March. He was a Bonner scholar, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and volunteered at a local elementary school.

Tate’s death was a first for Young, whose coaching career began in 1987 and who has been Wofford’s head coach for 13 years. Like Taviani, Young was and is doing his best to manage not only his team’s feelings, but his own.

Tate had texted Young a Father’s Day message the day before he drowned.

“Absolutely a beautiful person,” said Young. “Twenty years old. That’s brutal man. The worst. But that’s where we are.”

As major figures in the lives of Tate and Keller, both Young and Taviani spoke at services honoring the athletes while simultaneously grieving and helping their teams grieve.

BUT GRIEVING IS PERSONAL so even and the coaches may need coaching, said Dave Yukelson, Ph.D, director of Sport Psychology Services for Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics.

Yukelson said the instincts to comfort and listen can be sufficient, but professional counseling must be a part of the aftermath of tragedy. He recommends that athletic departments have an official policy in place for post-traumatic events. Of course, a coach has to be a friend in hard times, said Yukelson, but the athletes may need more than hugs.

“A coach’s role is to reach out for the help and support of experts,” said Yukelson. “If something traumatic happens, who are the resources that you turn to as coach and what are the resources the kids turn to, the first responders. You bring those people in to give the kids a chance to debrief.

“Coaches in this day and age play much more of a role than Xs and Os, whether in crisis or not crisis. They have to be psychologists, teachers; they have to have patience. These are the multiple roles a coach plays leading the kids.

“Athletics is what we do, coaches are empowered to take care of kids, but life happens and ‘Boom’ we have to react, so policies are real important to have in place involving counseling centers. And if you don’t have counseling centers, bring in people.”

The family atmosphere associated with a team is actually true for an entire athletic department in the wake of a tragedy, said Yukelson. Athletes of all sports typically share fitness facilities, classes, dorms and locker rooms. Teams and athletes across sports form one support group when an athlete dies suddenly.

Yukelson said coaches should keep in mind that the athletes are processing not only the loss of a teammate, roommate and friend. Their own mortality is in focus, as well as the transference of the tragedy to loved ones.

“This could happen to my brother or my father,” he said. “It’s real, and they’re kids and they need time to process and then get back to things. If they don’t process or they go numb to it or bury their head, you could get these repressed feelings manifesting themselves a year, two years, a month later.

“That’s why it’s healthy to talk. Give them a chance to talk, and if they don’t want to talk, give them a chance to express what their feelings are so they can move forward.”

KELLER'S FAMILY VISITED the team the week of the home opener, and delivered handwritten letters to all the players and coaches. Taviani’s is on his desk, two pages, double-sided, read and re-read.

The team wore three tributes to Keller — a black "BK" patch on their jerseys, a "#80, Captain America" sticker on their helmets (above) and a "BK #80" wristband. Before the game, they all walked before Keller's intact locker in their locker room.

“We’re just getting by day by day and it never goes away,” he said recently. “People say it gets easier with time. I don’t think it gets easier with time, I think you process it better with time.

“It’s going to take ongoing love and support from a lot of people. Time will heal some but not all.”

Joe Bush is a freelance writer based in Naperville, Ill.

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