- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) — Northern Illinois men’s basketball coach Ricardo Patton was returning from a recruiting trip when he heard about the campus shooting. Immediately, his mind started racing.

He knew one son was OK. He couldn’t reach the other one, though.

“Fortunately, our players were all together in practice,” Patton said yesterday during a conference call.

His son Michael is on the Northern Illinois basketball team and was at practice. Tracking down his older son, Ricardo Jr., a Huskies football player, wasn’t as easy.

Last week, Steven Kazmierczak entered a science lecture with a shotgun and pistols. He killed five people while wounding 16 before taking his own life.

With the campus locked down, there was no cell phone access. It took a few hours for the coach to get hold of Ricardo Jr.

“That was a tense moment,” the coach said. “But I was very prayerful that he was OK.”

Patton said he understands what frantic parents were going through.

Having his sons there “certainly gives me a perspective about how parents might be feeling about their students being here on campus,” he said. “We’ve had a wonderful experience here. There are some wonderful people. It’s a great academic institution. Those things are still in place.”

For Patton, the shootings jarred memories of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. He was coach at Colorado at the time. One of his players, Josh Townsend, lost a sister.

“I remember Josh Townsend’s mother stating it was very important that Josh was part of the team, and it’s no different now,” Patton said.

He never envisioned encountering a similar scenario. Yet that’s what he’s doing 11 months after taking the job at Northern Illinois.

He was heading back from a recruiting trip to California when an assistant coach called with the news. He remembered his Colorado team rallying around Townsend. Now, Patton expects the players to support each other when they return to campus today.

There will be no athletic competitions — home or away — until Monday, when classes resume. For the men’s basketball team, that means games against Western Michigan, Toledo and Tennessee State were called off. Patton thought only one might be rescheduled.

No NIU athletes were among the dead or wounded, although one men’s soccer player was in the class when the gunman started firing. The school is offering grief counseling, and coaches already met with counselors.

“The biggest thing that we heard was to listen to our students about how they’re feeling,” Patton said. “You certainly don’t want to try to tell them how they’re feeling.”

How this affects the team remains to be seen. The Huskies are 6-17 overall and are fifth in the Mid-American Conference’s six-team West division.

But there are bigger issues, bigger concerns.

“For me, it just confirms what I’ve always believed, and that is that our charge as coaches is greater than playing games,” Patton said. “Our charge as coaches is to help mold and shape young people’s lives and give them direction. The game is certainly secondary. It’s more about going through the healing process that our student-athletes need.”

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