November 26, 2014  

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One Phone Call Can Change Everything Rather Quickly

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What a week!

Saturday, Nov. 13, I watched on TV as the Golden Eagle football team pounced on the University of Central Florida … a Top 25 ranked team. Later that night I watched on TV as LSU beat University of Louisiana-Monroe. Happy my teams had won, I finally got into my bed about 1 a.m., only to hear my telephone ring about 2 o’clock.

I had trouble comprehending the words from the voice on the other end as she said “we’ve had an incident and three of our football players have been shot.”

“SHOT,” the word that kept bouncing between my ears. The first words to come to my mind were “are they alive.” And the answer was “I think so.”

It didn’t take long to realize there would be no sleep, that it was time to get dressed and head to the hospital. As the Southern Miss News and Media Relations Manager I would have to have answers for news reporters who would soon learn of the tragedy and want information.

In more than 35 years of news and communications work I’ve covered all sorts of events and far too many tragedies … and here was another. Martez Smith, Tim Green and Deddrick Jones had all been shot.  

There were so many groups and individuals who would have to work together on this event: Hattiesburg Police, University Police, Forrest General Hospital Police, doctors and nurses, public relations reps from the hospital, news and sports reporters, plus university administrators and the Southern Miss Athletic Department. By 10 a.m. roughly 10 of us were gathered in the President’s Conference Room planning how to address the needs of the news media with the privacy of our students and their families, all without hindering the on-going investigation by law enforcement.

By 1:30 p.m. nearly two dozen journalists were in that same conference room hearing the facts of the case – as we knew them – and asking questions. One local television station ran the news conference live, as did one radio station. Reporters and photographers from the Coast to the Capital wanted to know how all of this came to be … a celebration turned into a tragedy.

Sunday rolled into Monday with more questions and a night time arrest of two people accused of helping the alleged shooter after the event. Wednesday brought another arrest. Thursday came the news that one of the players – senior Martez Smith – wanted to be at the stadium for Senior Night. There were lengthy discussions with medical professionals, patient transport services, security, athletic department reps, and me. I listened, didn’t talk, as the decision was made to allow Smith to attend the Senior Night.

Friday came the decision to have fans sign well-wishes, put together a web page to display those well wishes, sell T-shirts, hand out stickers, and collect money for medical expenses. Friday night brought relief as the alleged shooter was taken into custody along with two individuals who allegedly helped him after the shooting. RELIEF, but still much to be done.

Saturday came, the campus swelled with fans, news media, and supporters. More than $10,000 was collected to the help the three wounded students with medical expenses. The excitement was palpable as the seniors were introduced one-by-one.

Then the moment came that those in attendance will never forget. Senior Martez Smith was accompanied into the stadium. This young man who was paralyzed from the waist down by a gunman’s bullet showed strength and courage beyond imagination. With tears staining his face, the faces of fellow players and the faces of many others, he waved to the crowd and his teammates.

It had been a week … a long week, but a week in which the resolve of the Southern Miss family, local law enforcement and Golden Eagle football fans came together. At that moment it was evident of all there was to be thankful … thankful for the fact the players were alive, for their medical care, their strength and determination, the dedication of law enforcement, the campus community and for the opportunity to witness, first-hand, what it means to be a Golden Eagle.