Paris terrorist attacks hit home for French athletes in U.S.

He used to play basketball, at all hours, down the road from one of the attacks. Eric Katenda used to shop at a store located near another. The insanity around Paris wasn’t just tragic. It was personal.

“That’s a 10-minute walk from where I used to live,” Katenda, a Paris native and a senior forward on the North Texas men’s basketball squad, told when asked about last Friday’s terrorist attacks. “That’s really scary stuff. Me and my friends could’ve been there.

“I never really thought something like this would happen over there. Growing up, I was a kid who would leave the house at 10 a.m. and come back at 10-11 p.m. after playing basketball and without any fear and never thought about it. Now my (little) brother, he wants to go out, and I tell him, ‘Maybe you should be home by 6, while there’s still light out. Maybe you shouldn’t play in the dark.’”

Darkness, they’ve seen far too much of already. Terrorists killed 129 people and left more than 430 wounded as of early Wednesday morning in the deadliest single attack inside France since the end of World War II. Katenda’s cousin, Anthony, was walking out of basketball practice when the incidents began, and sought refuge at a teammate’s apartment until his brother could pick him up.

“I’m grateful that everybody I know is OK,” the Mean Green big man said. “I wouldn’t say they’re scared, but it’s just a different vibe. It’s just a hard feeling to describe … I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I don’t think my family would be able to tell you at this point. It’s just one of those odds things you live with that you have no control over.”

For French student-athletes across the United States this week, miles from loved ones, the “normal” is new. New and awful. Thomas de Villardi, a defender on the Delaware men’s soccer team, grew up just outside Paris proper in the surburb of Vincennes.

He and fellow Frenchman Thibault Philippe were playing against Elon in the Colonial Athletic Association semifinals when the news broke. They returned to their lockers after the game to find phones quaking with texts, asking if they’d seen the carnage.

“Seven different places in the same day at the same hour,” said Philippe, whose Blue Hens will face Hofstra in Sunday’s league championship at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday on ASN. “Crazy.”

Crazier still: de Villardi’s mother, Mireielle, used to teach at a school near one of the incidents. She retired only last year.

“And they found one of the terrorist’s cars not even a mile from where I live,” de Villardi said. “So it’s very scary.”

Sometimes, the world you know feels a little less secure. And sometimes, it starts to feel just a little bit smaller.

“A lot of people (on campus) reached out to me, asking if my family as all right and (offering) best wishes and telling me the were going pray for Paris,” said Katenda, who moved to the United States to attend prep school at the age of 15. “That was really nice, that a lot of people were concerned with what’s going on over there.”

When everything thought you knew, everything you thought you could trust, turns on its head, what do you do? What can you say? Of the four suicide bombings Friday, three were just outside the Stade de France, where the French national men’s soccer team was hosting an international friendly with Germany. At roughly the same time, a trio of shooters had opened fire on a rock concert crowd inside the Bataclan theater.

“Imagining walking in the place where 30-40 people have been killed is like, I can’t even describe that feeling,” Katenda said. “And all I can do right now is call and check on (family) and make sure my brother doesn’t do things he’s not supposed to do.”

While little brother Abel’s school has been shuttered, his mother, Jeanne, a nurse at a local hospital, remains on call.

“She said going to work, it’s like a ghost town, she goes on the streets and it’s empty,” Katenda said. “It’s kind of freaky, especially in the morning. (Usually) everyone’s getting up and getting moving; she’s walking the streets and she’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Tuesday night, officials in Germany called off a soccer friendly with the Netherlands and evacuated the stadium because of a bomb threat. A pair of Air France planes heading to Paris from the U.S. had to be diverted. Meanwhile, de Villardi’s best friend back home is a native of Tunisia and a practicing Muslim, wondering what’s next.

“In some people’s minds, it’s going to change some things,” the Blue Hens defender said. “But I think most of the population knows that terrorism is not a religion, it has nothing to do with the Muslim (faith). Obviously, (my friend) knows that some people are still going to say things and still going to look at him as if he were dangerous. That’s what (the terrorists) want, so people in France have to be careful about that and keep treating the Muslims as French people.”

And that’s the trick: Returning to balance in a world on edge. One attack was 20 minutes from where Katenda grew up. A second was 20 minutes from his cousin’s practice. Even from an ocean away, the news still hits painfully close to home.

“I think that everyone realizes this is what the (terrorists) want, so I think people will react the other way, same as before,” Philippe said. “I’m sure people will continue with (their normal) life … you can see them outside, drinking at the cafes. They just want to show them that they’re going to be living the same way as before.”

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