Charleston Southern students use faith to deal with deathsFebruary 8, 2007
by Pete Iacobelli, Associated Press
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. | The black mourning bands went back on team uniforms at Charleston Southern University last month. As they have in the past, students again gathered to pray for a fallen athlete - voices raised from the chapel of the small Baptist school and from dorm rooms where young men and women congregate to grieve.
When sprinter Josh Williams died from heart failure in January, his passing marked the third time in two years the tiny campus lost an athlete. At this school of less than 3,000 students - formerly called Baptist College - pain tends to give way to the comfort of ardent beliefs.
"We know we're going to see them again," Bucs kicker Nick Ellis said recently. "It really makes you strong in your faith."
Ellis was close friends with 20-year-old Charleston receiver Eddie Gadson, who died in a car accident in June 2005. A few months later, 18-year-old freshman pitcher Grant Ringenberg died from injuries after fighting with another student.
The school has had to mourn athletes before. In 1998, two football players died: 18-year-old running back Kevin Keyes was killed during a carjacking on his way back to school, and 21-year-old lineman Scott Wehnes collapsed and died of acute bleeding in his brain.
"As an athletic department, we've taken some heavy blows," said Michael Rhue, a Buccaneers sprinter and Williams' roommate.
Athletes, coaches and administrators are striving to draw inspiration from despair, and use as an example a football team that hadn't had a winning season since the program began in 1991. But the 2005 club, who wore "EG21" logos in Gadson's honor, went 7-4 and won the Big South Conference title. Those who were involved say something divine took place.
They point to the 34-27, double-overtime clincher over powerful Coastal Carolina as evidence. Charleston came from 14 points down over the final three minutes, helped by a Coastal player stepping out of bounds instead of out of the end zone on a fourth-down play, which led to the Bucs' tying score.
Charleston's win touched off a celebration. Players, fans and Gadson's father rushed onto the field to embrace atop the receiver's on-field logo.
Thoughts of Gadson and Ringenberg came rushing back to their friends after Williams died.
"You say, 'Why us?'" Ellis said. "On a small campus with a small number of athletes, three people in two years. That's pretty wild."
Williams was preparing to go home to Baton Rouge, La., for winter break when he first felt chest pains and called for an ambulance. Tests did not reveal any abnormalities, according to track coach Tim Langford. More tests back home showed he was OK, so he prepared to return school, Langford said.
"Josh packed the car, hugged his mother, went down to New Orleans to watch a movie with some friends," Langford said. "He never came out of the theater."
The news saddened teammates and students who relied on Williams' leadership on the track and in Bible study groups.
Team members, coaches and others bused 14 hours to Williams' hometown funeral. More than 600 people attended a campus memorial at Lightsey Chapel, sharing memories of their departed friend, said athletic director Hank Small.
"I was not aware at the time of all the things Josh was doing," Small said. "He was an unbelievable kid."
Langford said Williams' faith came alive after Hurricane Katrina devastated his home state and he returned to offer help. There, Williams met a pastor whose church had gone from a few thousand members to about 30.
Soon after, Williams told Langford, "My life is headed in a whole new direction. I want to save as many people as I can."
After his first bout of chest pains, Williams wrote a poem about his struggle to cope.
"I been walkin round in Pain, I been walkin round in Stress," Williams wrote. "Lord God, wont you help Me, Get me out of this Mess."
The poem concludes, "My healing aint in Medicine. My healing is in Prayer. I'm standing on my Word, Cause Satan I'm a demon Slayer."
The words were read during Williams' service. The school hopes to laminate the text to give out and the track team is printing T-shirts with Williams' favorite Bible verse, Joshua 1:9, which ends, "Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you whereever you go."
Rhue and other teammates have continued Williams' practice of leading prayer before workouts.
"We're just trying to do all we can to keep what he stood for up front," Small said.
Langford said he already has seen Williams' spirit take root in Charleston Southern's athletes. The practices have been more focused, runners following Williams' message to work harder each time they suit up.
The 1,600-meter relay finished at an East Tennessee State meet in 3:17.05 two weeks ago, more than 8 seconds faster than its time at a North Carolina competition on Jan. 13.
The influence of Gadson and Ringenberg also remains.
A bullpen bench at Charleston Southern's home baseball field was dedicated to Ringenberg.
Gadson's football stall is encased by clear plastic, his No. 21 uniform and equipment there until his class graduates.
The school will award the second "Eddie Gadson Scholarship" to a deserving player at the Bucs spring game April 14. Ellis said he still gets chills when he touches Gadson's locker each day.
"I've got to think," said Small, "a very similar thing will happen with Josh."