Twenty years ago …

For a February day, it was an unseasonably warm day in my hometown. I had stayed after school to turn in my uniform and equipment and I waited in the gymnasium lobby with another one of my teammates, for our ride home. We weren’t old enough to have our drivers licenses.

She and I looked out the window of the lobby, waiting for her mom’s minivan. We said to each other, Did you hear about the quarterback? 

Whispers had circulated through school that something had happened. That a classmate of ours was in jail. That someone was hurt. That someone else had stayed home from school, then came to school and found shelter in the school library.

We went through the school, in search of the local paper. It was on a desk in the main office. The assistant principal wouldn’t let us see it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that may have been a violation of the First Amendment. Or some form of institutional censorship. Still, I anxiously wanted to get home. I wanted to find out what happened.

I’ll call you and tell you, I told my teammate before I got out of her mom’s minivan.

The paper was in our red box. The story was stripped across the top of the front page. Our former classmate was in jail, accused of killing a former classmate two days earlier. The story explained that he was being held after allegedly stabbing our former classmate – whom the paper described as a “rival suitor” – in front of his house and burying the body nearby, under a pile of leaves. The story also explained that the former quarterback from our high school was enrolled in his first semester at a private school in the city.

His absence wasn’t prominent. In fact, I hadn’t noticed was of gone from the school until that day, when people in my seventh-period art class talked about him in hushed tones.

But I had grown up with his family.

His sister was one of my teammates and a person whom, even at a young age, I connected with.

His brother was a happy, friendly kid who reached out to help people, especially in sports and gym class. I remember his sincerity and his sense of humor. His brother was what you would call “a sweet kid,” and he would have made a fantastic coach.

That all changed. They were suddenly isolated and had isolated themselves, cast as a certain pariah on our peninsula. I felt badly for his brother and sister, that they had to go through this. But I didn’t feel badly for the quarterback. He’d committed a heinous crime and later pled guilty. He remains incarcerated.

***

I don’t remember the day he pled guilty as much as the day we found out he’d committed the crime. My best friend recalls the moment he found out, too, when an older classmate of ours stormed into the lobby of the school, holding up a fresh copy of the local paper, and screamed, “I never trusted that fucker!”

It stuck with our school – and divided our school – through the remainder of the school year. There were two factions: those who stood by the former quarterback and those who saw him as a person who committed a brutal crime.

But there were layers.

We remembered seeing him walk home after football games, carrying his equipment bag. It was rumored to be  punishment if he hadn’t performed to his father’s expectations. We remembered how he was surrounded by girls. We remembered how he had a certain swagger to him, how he always seemed to have his way.

That summer at field hockey camp, the stories came spilling out. How the former quarterback had tried to drown someone at a pool party. How he had attempted to push someone out of an amusement park ride on a class trip to Virginia. How he had grabbed classmates and thrown them into walls, lockers, goalposts … How he nearly ran someone over in his orange sports car. Years later, I realized that we were dealing with an unstable individual. And that the emotional instability wasn’t just limited to him.

I recently had dinner with a friend of mine from high school and we talked about that time.  She told me a classmate of ours believes and maintains the killing was justified because the man he stabbed “fucked with the quaterback’s head.”

“Excuse me,” I asked, setting my fork down onto my dinner plate. “But who deserves to be brutally murdered in front of heir own house and buried under a pile of leaves?”

***

Twenty years ago this week, my classmates and I were taught a hard lesson in morals. We learned that classmates killing other classmates didn’t just happen 30 minutes north of us or an hour west of us, or in the parts of those cities we’d only seen in movies or heard about in hard-core rap music.

It happened in front of our neighbor’s house. To someone we know. In our little corner of Suburbia, U.S.A. And it was the second murder in our neighborhood in eight years that involved a high school student. It’s worth noting we also lost a classmate to a brain aneurysm, another to a respiratory disease and a third to a fall off a high-level bridge – that’s another post for another day – but none of the losses stuck with me as much as this one. And I barely even knew the person who lost their life. I barely knew the person who took it.

I remember now a lot of the good times from high school, more than I did 10 years ago when the adolescent anger was still fresh.  I remember the people – the classmates, the teachers, the coaches, the administrators – who helped me and who made an impact on me.

I remember the people who sat next to me in classes and the conversations we had. I remember funny moments with teammates.

I remember the good times I had driving around with friends on a weekend night.

On one of those Friday nights, I remember riding in one of those cars, seeing the high school quarterback walking down the two-lane highway, his equipment bag slung over his shoulder and his head down. We didn’t pull over and offer him a lift home.

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