Inspirational speakers are frequent visitors to college football teams. Alumni now in the NFL return to dole out advice. Superstars from other sports stop by to talk competitive spirit. Sports psychologists discuss how to handle stress.
Brenda Tracy is none of these.
But there she was Wednesday afternoon, standing in front of the University of Nebraska football team, delivering a powerful speech unlike any other the players are likely to ever hear.
Back in 1998, when Tracy was 24, she was gang-raped by four football players, she told the team.
Two of her attackers played for Oregon State University, she continued. When the charges were dropped, and the players received nothing more than a one-game suspension, their coach called the two men “really good guys who made a bad choice.”
That coach, the one whose words had enraged her 18 years earlier, was now standing in front of her.
Mike Riley, once coach of OSU, was now in charge of Nebraska football.
Tracy wasn’t holding back.
“At one point I hated this man more than my rapists,” Tracy said, referring to Riley, according to USA Today. She described in graphic detail her gang rape, her thoughts of suicide, her long struggle to feel normal.
“You could literally see the whole room turn and look at Coach Riley,” she told reporters afterward. “It was intense. I saw them all look. I could feel it.”
Almost as remarkable as Tracy’s speech, however, was the reason why she was there in the first place.
Riley had invited her.
Their meeting was nearly two decades in the making. In that time, sexual assault on college campuses has gone from a silent epidemic to the subject of intense national discussion.
Could telling her story now, in front of the man who, she felt, had trivialized her suffering so many years ago, provide some semblance of closure?
‘The things that they did to me are now burned into my memory’
In 1998, Brenda Tracy was a waitress at a restaurant in Salem, Ore. She was 24 years old, the single mother of two young boys.
One night in June, she joined a female friend at a small gathering at the apartment of an OSU defensive back. Also at the apartment were an OSU running back, a high school star being recruited to play for OSU, and a 23-year-old community college player on probation for armed robbery in California.
After an evening of gin, orange juice and video games, Tracy ended up unconscious.
She woke up to find the recruit on top of her, having sex with her as someone shouted “Yea dog!,” the Oregonian reported in 2014, citing police reports.
Tracy was force-fed alcohol, vomited in the restroom, was violated with a flashlight and raped by at least two of the men as the others watched, she told investigators. Her female friend, meanwhile, was in a bedroom.
“The attack lasted more than six hours and as I went in and out of consciousness the things that they did to me are now burned into my memory,” she later wrote. “Like a piece of cattle I was branded, never to forget eight hands on me, inside me, their laughs as they high-fived each other in a congratulatory manner as they each took turns raping me. … Never to forget the next morning when I awoke to the smell of dried vomit in my hair, the stickiness of a condom stuck to my stomach, the food crumbs that left indentations on my skin as I lay face down on the apartment floor like a piece of garbage that someone forgot to pick up.”
“I remember not being able to move my arms and legs,” Tracy told the Oregonian, which in 2014, was the first publication to tell her full story, including her name. The Washington Post’s policy is not to identify victims of sex crimes unless they chose to share their stories publicly.
“I’ve always wondered if I was drugged,” she told the Oregonian. “I was like a rag doll. They were picking me up and tossing me around the whole apartment.” A toxicology report the day after came back negative for drugs, the newspaper reported.
Tracy’s friend found her naked on the floor the next morning, covered by only a blanket. She cried for the entire 45-minute drive back to her apartment, she told police. She then called her mother, who found Tracy curled into a ball on the couch, sobbing, according to the newspaper.
At first, Tracy did not want to talk to police. Then she decided she would report what happened — and commit suicide.
“I’d made my mind up after talking to police that I was going to do the rape examination, then I was going to go kill myself,” she said.
A long conversation with the nurse giving the exam, however, convinced Tracy not to take her life.
After medical authorities agreed that the physical evidence pointed to rape, the four football players were arrested. When questioned by police, the men pointed fingers at each other, according to the Oregonian.
The two OSU players, Calvin Carlyle and Jason Dandridge, were charged with sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration and sex abuse, according to the Associated Press. The recruit, Michael Ainsworth, and the community college player, Nakia Ware, faced the same charges, plus one charge of rape. Ainsworth told police the sex he participated in was consensual, the Oregonian reported, but that others had violated her. Carlyle told the newspaper there was “no proof” of her allegations. Dandridge told police there had been some “risky business” since Tracy didn’t appear to want to have sex, although she didn’t say “no.” Ware said he put on a condom to have sex but did not after she refused.
Mike Riley, then the head coach at OSU, suspended his two players for one game.
As prosecutors were preparing to try their case, however, Tracy suddenly refused to cooperate.
“Two weeks after reporting the attack and enduring a severe backlash and death threats from a community that should have helped me and protected me — I dropped the charges,” she later wrote.
Riley, then a young coach, decided his players would still serve a one-game suspension, but he also defended them to reporters.
“These are really good guys who made a bad choice,” he said.
‘Maybe I should have done more’
Those three words — “a bad choice” — would come back to haunt Riley.
But not as much as they would haunt Brenda Tracy.
Inspired by the woman who steered her away from suicide, Tracy followed in her footsteps, becoming a nurse.
But even as she studied for two nursing degrees and raised her children, she was furious at what she saw as Riley’s lax response to her ordeal.
“I despised that man,” she told the Oregonian earlier this year. “I hated him with every cell in my body.”
When the newspaper contacted the coach in 2014, however, he did two things.
First, he admitted he could have been harsher on his players given Tracy’s accusations — never retracted — against them.
“I felt I needed to do something there to send a message,” Riley told Oregonian reporter John Canzano. “Maybe I should have done more.”
Second, the coach asked Canzano if he thought Tracy might come and talk to his team.
“That would be a compelling talk,” Riley said. “A real-life talk. Instead of just talking about rape and sexual assault, actually having someone talk about how things can change for everyone in a moment like that.”
For a while, it seemed like little more than a nice idea. In December 2014, Riley took charge of Nebraska’s storied football program, moving from Oregon to the Midwest.
But then, in May of this year, Canzano reported that the talk was about to come true.
Tracy would fly out to Nebraska to talk to Riley and his team on June 22.
Since she had gone public with her story, she had become an advocate for survivors of sexual assault. She had lobbied for legislation protecting survivors and had even been hired by OSU to help the institution prevent sexual assault.
Yet, Tracy was still simmering with anger toward Riley.
“This is a coach who victimized me,” she told Canzano in May, “and now I’m going to stand in front of his football team and tell them how I felt.”
As the date approached, her anger didn’t appear to dissipate.
In an op-ed published in the Oregonian, she said that Riley’s words had “scarred” her.
“How could coach Riley say that? Good guys? A bad choice? I couldn’t understand. What was a bad choice? Was it a bad choice when his player was raping me or when that player was watching three other men rape me?” she wrote. “A bad choice… a bad choice is staying up late when you have to be up early. A bad choice is drinking underage. A bad choice is speeding on the freeway and getting a ticket.”
No matter how difficult the speech, she was making it for all rape victims, she said.
“In a few days I will board a plane to Lincoln, Neb. … Please pray for me.”
‘This is a coach who victimized me, and now I’m going to stand in front of his football team and tell them how I felt’
When Tracy arrived at Lincoln Airport, there were television crews waiting for her.
Later, at her hotel, she was met by two Nebraska University athletic department officials. They escorted her to campus, past a bronze statue of a legendary NU coach directing his star quarterback. Guiding him.
Tracy followed the officials into a massive athletic building, up an elevator and down long halls.
Then they stopped.
“Is he in there?” Tracy asked one of the officials.
She took a deep breath and went inside to face the man she had hated for 18 years.
“Hi, Brenda,” Riley said with a smile.
“Then he hugged me,” Tracy told the Omaha World-Herald. “He allowed me to cry on his shoulder for a few minutes.”
The two talked for more than an hour.
“I said everything I needed to say. I asked everything I needed to ask,” Tracy told the Lincoln Journal Star. “We talked about 1,000 different topics. … I feel like I put everything on the table and left it all there.”
“He answered everything,” she told the World-Herald.
And he apologized.
For not digging more into what really happened during those six hours back in 1998.
“He said he just knew the players had been arrested and the charges were dropped,” Tracy told the World-Herald. “He knew he had to do something. He didn’t consider the impact on my life. He didn’t do any research into it. He said he didn’t know any of the specifics.”
Perhaps most important of all, Tracy believed him.
“I did not feel any deception coming from him,” she said. “He said if he had known, he would have done something.”
Riley said his understanding of sexual assault had changed over the past 18 years, according to Tracy.
“I feel like he got it, the things I was saying to him, and the way he impacted me, I think he understood how much he impacted my life and how that decision hurt me,” she told the Journal Star. “And I really feel like he would not do something like that again. I feel like he understands that lives are more valuable than win-loss record.”
After their meeting, it was time for Tracy to talk to the team.
She told the players about her six hellish hours in the apartment, about the pain, the humiliation, the death threats.
And when she told the players that she used to hate Riley “more than my rapists,” she could feel 150 faces turn from her to the coach and back again.
But she also told them that Riley didn’t have to bring her to Lincoln.
“This is what accountability looks like,” she told the players, according to USA Today. “This is what transparency looks like. This is how we get things done.”
She even said the players should appreciate having a coach like Riley, and learn from him.
“It’s OK to be accountable,” she told the team, the World-Herald reported. “It’s OK to say you’re sorry.”
Later, she would tell reporters that she was “very proud of coach Riley and his football team.”
In the wake of yet another sexual assault scandal on campus, this time surrounding the Baylor University football team, Tracy would say the Nebraska players could be “a good example in a very dark time for college football.”
But before sitting down with the media to share her incredible journey, from survivor to advocate, silence to speech, she had something else to do.
Something that, for 18 years, had been unthinkable.
She snapped a photo with Riley.
And she was smiling.