Three days after the crash, when Sutton spoke for the first time at a press conference, I was in the front row and noticed his suddenly weathered face and worn eyes. “I tried to advocate the team that this is a long process,” he said. “One way to do this is to think about the good times we had with the people who are gone.”
I had friends to turn to. College newspapers have reasonably robust staff, and ours were closely related. What I didn’t have was a self-care playbook or even good advice. The journalism school emphasizes objectivity and tenacity, so I tried to be objective and persistent. The pain I was covering belonged to someone else. It couldn’t be mine.
Almost robotic, I switched my way through the reporting, suppressing any feeling of sadness or heartache when it occurred. By the time I left college and became a professional journalist, I withdrew from reporting the crash and did without memorials, anniversaries, or reflective essays. When I graduated in May 2001, I packed up all of my reporting – writing, editing, designing, and planning – and didn’t open the box until 2017.
I knew that it was inherently unhealthy to ignore my feelings. Grief and heartbreak are as common among reporters as the pursuit of objectivity.
A few months after graduation, I was living in Oklahoma City when the 9/11 attacks occurred and I drove 60 miles to Stillwater to help the student journalists publish the daily paper. Today I watch my colleagues report death, a pandemic and civil unrest, sometimes at personal risk, and I hope I am doing something – anything – to help them process their own experiences.
The joy of sport has never diminished, although the experience opened up new perspectives for me. It’s just a game, but for some people – including many fans of the Oklahoma state – that game is all that matters.
Its programs have seen more tragedies in recent years. In 2011, another plane crash that killed chief women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and his assistant Miranda Serna brought new and old sorrows to the university. In 2015, a driver accidentally bumped into a crowd during the football homecoming parade, killing four people.