A week ago, Ohio State played a non-conference basketball game that many would not recall if not for a well-spoken head coach that left people with moist eyes. The opponent hailed from the Big South Conference, and though the Buckeyes struggled, they still managed to win the game by double digits. In Columbus, December basketball ranks near preseason hockey – not exactly the hottest ticket in town.
But then Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey delivered a sermon that touched nearly everyone that heard his words. The speech quickly went viral due to the sensitivity of the subject and the overall message. For years now, people will point back to the Ohio State-Winthrop game as the time Kelsey spoke to a nation and inspired many of its citizens.
As Christmas and the rest of the holiday season descends on us, work, school and other worrisome aspects of life take a back seat. Friends and family become the issue of the day. But less than two weeks ago, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions took place in Newtown, Conn.
When real-life horror takes place in such unspeakable terms, heartache sets in. And during the holiday season, emotions are already heightened. Ohio State athletics is part of the fabric of the entire state and helps define the city of Columbus. The Buckeyes also act as a release to their thousands of fans and more than half a million alumni.
But it is just sports.
The games are not life and death, though some members of Buckeye Nation would dispute that. Events happen every so often that remind us about sports’ place in society. Kelsey helped reinforce that thought.
“I’m really, really lucky,” he said. “I’m gonna get on an eight-hour bus ride and I’m gonna arrive in Rock Hill, S.C., and I’m gonna walk into my house and walk upstairs. I’m gonna walk into two pink rooms with a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old laying in that pink room, with a bunch of teddy bears laying in that room.
“And I’m gonna give them the biggest hug and the biggest kiss I’ve ever given them. And there are 20 families in Newtown, Conn., that are walking into a pink room with a bunch of teddy bears with nobody lying in those beds. And it’s tragic.”
An Ohio native, Kelsey has been around high-level athletic programs his entire life. He attended high school at powerhouse Elder, winning a state championship before moving on to the University of Wyoming and Xavier. His coaching career has included stops at Wake Forest and Xavier.
But ironically, a tragedy made Kelsey’s love for the game of basketball disappear. His mentor, Skip Prosser, died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2007. When Kelsey had a difficult time recovering, he stepped down from his coaching position and spent more time with his family.
“The death of Coach Prosser had a profound effect on me and it took stepping away to come to grips with it,” Kelsey said. “I’m a teacher, a motivator and a coach and I feel like I do those things at a very high level. Coach Prosser's legacy will live on in people like me who will instill in young men the same core values that he conveyed every day. The pillars of his program were based on his ‘ABCs.’ That was academics, basketball and character. These three letters were the fabric of what he taught and what he believed in.”
The same is true for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and brothers and sisters. One teaches, motivates and passes values down and the cycle continues from generation to generation.
Ohio State’s journey to the Final Four, Urban Meyer’s first season ending with a 12-0 record and a victory over Michigan gave scarlet-and-gray-clad fans reason to cheer in 2012. Across all sports, the Buckeyes finished in the top five of the Directors' Cup for the 2011-12 academic year, marking one of the top finishes in school history.
On Christmas Day, families not just in Connecticut will have heavy hearts after somber events throughout the year, from Newtown to Superstorm Sandy to Aurora, Colorado.
“I’m going to be an agent of change with the 13 young men I get to coach every day and the two little girls that I get to raise,” Kelsey said. “But hopefully things start changing, because it’s really, really disappointing.”
Already, the outpouring of goodwill in Connecticut has reached levels that have made the world take notice and applaud. Toys, money and food have been donated. Various police departments from around the state of Connecticut have teamed up so no Newtown officers have to work Tuesday. And instead of collecting the overtime pay, the officers are donating their paychecks to charities benefiting the city and Sandy Hook Elementary.
But each person in that community would much rather be preoccupied with the collapses of the New York Jets and Giants or the impending seasons for the Yankees and Mets. Instead, children, teachers and a principal were buried.
“All the families who lost those little kids, Christmas will never be the same," Newtown resident Philippe Poncet said recently. “Everybody across the world is trying to share the tragedy with our community here.”
Once Opening Day arrives, one hopes sports can be an escape and welcome diversion for those affected by the Connecticut shooting, as well as all those around the world who are filled with sorrow that erases all the activities we enjoy.