- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The Miami football team returned to practice yesterday, an already trying season transformed into something far worse after the death of defensive tackle Bryan Pata on Tuesday.

Suddenly, the Hurricanes’ two-game losing streak didn’t matter. Neither did quarterback Kyle Wright’s thumb injury, nor Miami’s infamous brawl with Florida International last month that provoked universal scorn.

Instead, Miami faces the twin tasks of preparing for a game to be played as scheduled this weekend while mourning a teammate.

“It’s very difficult,” coach Larry Coker said yesterday on the ACC’s weekly teleconference. “We’re going to get through today. Last night, everybody was in shock and denial. Today is a day of reality. It’s real. Number 95 will not be at his locker. Number 95 won’t be in a stretch line.”

The senior, who started much of the last two seasons at defensive end before moving inside this season, was shot and killed in what police have ruled a homicide outside his off-campus apartment complex shortly after returning from practice. Pata had 13 tackles and two sacks this season for Miami.

Coker said an on-campus memorial service for Pata is scheduled for Wednesday.

Before then, the Hurricanes (5-4, 2-3) will visit No. 23 Maryland (7-2, 4-1) on Saturday, a game Coker insisted they would play.

“We haven’t talked about that,” Coker said. “We don’t plan on postponing the game or canceling the game. We plan on going to practice and working through this and doing our best to represent our university and to represent Bryan Pata.”

A postponement or cancellation could have created potential problems for the ACC’s title race. Neither team has a bye the rest of the season, and Maryland remains a contender for the Atlantic Division title and a spot in the Dec. 2 conference championship game. Miami has been all but eliminated from title game contention in the Coastal Division.

However, Maryland officials said yesterday they had no discussions about moving the game to a later date.

“It was not floated,” Maryland associate athletic director for external operations Brian Ullmann said. “There was a regular coaches’ conference call, and that was the extent of the conversation. When Coach Coker said ‘We’re not going to request a postponement,’ that’s all we needed to hear.”

Coker recalled yesterday how Pata and his family felt like “they just hit the lottery” when the Miami native was offered a scholarship to play for the Hurricanes and attend school. The 6-foot-4, 280-pounder started 23 games for the Hurricanes and was expected to be selected in next year’s NFL Draft.

The coming days will be trying for Miami, which has endured enough distractions to last a decade this season. Thirteen Hurricanes were suspended for their roles in a brawl during an Oct. 14 victory over Florida International. Backup safety Willie Cooper was shot in the buttocks — though not seriously injured — in his yard in July, and teammate Brandon Meriweather returned fire and missed.

Those problems are unlikely to be nearly as difficult to handle as Pata’s death.

“You don’t get over it, but you do move past,” said Coker, who will give Kirby Freeman his first start at quarterback Saturday in place of Wright. “We want to be respectful of our team in this process. They were in the locker room with Bryan. That’s a tough, tough situation.”

Miami also earned attention for its on-field troubles this season. The Hurricanes have lost four games for the first time since 1999 and only the third time since 1985, and roiled fans have grumbled about Coker’s performance.

Miami tumbled out of the rankings in September and has dropped its last two games, although those results don’t seem quite as important to the Hurricanes after Pata’s death.

“The thing I’ve said and told my players is we’ve had some bad things happen, and it hasn’t been the season we’ve hoped it would,” Coker said. “But we’re the University of Miami, and we can handle it. That’s another level. Losing a game isn’t a tragedy. This is a tragedy.”

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