A year later, Winthrop coach reflects on Newtown

12/14/2013 11:00 PM

12/14/2013 11:04 PM

On the sidelines, Pat Kelsey’s game-day good luck charm isn’t a sweat-stained arm band or piece of a basketball net from a big win.

It’s a small, green “worry stone” from the Kowalski family in Newtown, Conn. Kelsey, Winthrop University’s men’s basketball coach, keeps it in his suit pants pocket during every game.

His office is decorated with the standards – framed family photos and pages of colorful drawings from his two little girls. But, there’s an extra picture taped to Kelsey’s desk, hanging just above his computer: one of a little boy, smiling sweetly.

It’s a wallet-sized photo of Chase Kowalski, one of the 20 first-graders killed a year ago today during a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Kelsey has never met the Kowalski family. And Newtown is more than 700 miles away from Rock Hill, where Kelsey coaches and lives with his wife Lisa and their daughters Ruthie, 6, and Caroline, 4, and their new baby, Johnny.

But it was Kelsey’s emotional response last year during a post-game news conference that garnered national attention five days after the Sandy Hook shootings.

Kelsey called on politicians and the community at large to step up and prevent similar tragedies.

“Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches – everybody needs to step up,” he said then. “This has to be a time for change.”

This week, Kelsey said he’s concerned that discussion about how to fix the societal problems that probably caused the shooting has seemed to fade away.

“I was absolutely horrified by what happened,” Kelsey said. “It hit home with me because I have children the same age as those children who were murdered up in Newtown. I couldn’t shake it.”

Since Kelsey’s speech, he has formed a bond with Chase’s parents, Steve and Rebecca Kowalski. They hope to soon visit Kelsey and his family in Rock Hill.

When they saw footage of Kelsey’s news conference, the couple “admired his courage to seize the opportunity to speak his mind,” Rebecca Kowalski told The Herald this week.

“He touched our hearts, and we agreed wholeheartedly in his words. Shortly after, we had the opportunity to speak with him and realized the magnitude of his emotion from the tragedy and the sincerity of his passion to help.”

To honor Chase, the Kowalskis started a memorial fund.

Their projects include a finished playground in memory of Chase at Normandy Beach in New Jersey. They recently teamed up with the Greater Waterbury YMCA near their home to start the Race4Chase Kid’s Triathlon Program.

Running, swimming and biking were some of Chase’s favorite activities. The year before he was killed, he competed in his first triathlon. His family hopes one day to expand the triathlon program to other cities across the nation.

When the basketball off-season rolls around, Kelsey said, he wants to get more involved in the memorial fund’s efforts.

Kelsey has been a friend, the Kowalskis said, and he’s helping to “honor Chase and join us on this journey.”

‘Divine’ moment for call to action

Before Kelsey knew Chase’s name, he just knew what he was feeling as a dad when he heard about the Sandy Hook shootings.

Nearing the end of a six-day, two-game road trip in Ohio for Winthrop, Kelsey was wrapping up a press conference after a tough game against Ohio State when what he considers a “divine” moment happened.

Kelsey remembers the press room being packed. He had just told sports reporters how his Winthrop Eagles team had given their opponents “all they could handle.”

He was about to leave the room but he remembers looking into the face of one reporter who asked, “Coach, do you have anything else?”

Kelsey answered the reporter’s question with the only other thing besides basketball that had been on his mind for four days:

“I’m really, really lucky, ’cause I’m gonna get on an eight-hour bus ride, and I’m gonna arrive in Rock Hill, South Carolina. And I’m gonna walk into my house, and I’m gonna walk upstairs, and I’m gonna walk into two pink rooms, OK, with a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old laying in that pink room, with a bunch of teddy bears laying in that room.

“And I’m gonna give them the biggest hug and the biggest kiss I’ve ever given them. And there’s 20 families in Newtown, Connecticut, that are walking into a pink room with a bunch of teddy bears with nobody laying in those beds. And it’s tragic.”

For nearly two minutes, he spoke from the heart.

“The Lord was telling me that I had to say something,” Kelsey said. “And I sat back down and was just speaking like ‘Joe America.’ ”

For a few days, Kelsey was in the national spotlight, one voice among many – most with very different views on gun-control legislation and how to address mental health issues.

For a few days, he was repeatedly telling all who asked that he doesn’t know what legislative reforms are needed, that he was just “like any other parent in America” following the murder of 20 innocent children and six school employees.

For a few days, he was inundated with phone calls and emails from the likes of ESPN and USA Today – something Kelsey says made him a little uncomfortable – and still does.

But, it was Rebecca Kowalski’s phone call two weeks later that surprised and touched Kelsey more than anything else.

He calls it “probably the biggest, life-changing, profound moment.”

It was her perspective “that blew me away,” Kelsey said. “We all think we have problems, we all think we have it tough. When you look at what they went through, what we have to deal with is just so trivial.”

Kelsey has been inspired, he said, by Rebecca Kowalski’s faith and her belief that something good can come from the tragedy she and every other Sandy Hook parent has been through.

He doesn’t think he did anything special by saying what every other parent in America felt right after the shooting.

The attention, Kelsey says, shouldn’t be on him but on the issues that need debate and on new solutions to curb the violence far too prevalent in the United States – especially in its schools.

He stops just short of advocating for any particular gun control law or legislative action. What he does point to is his belief that society has lost sight of right and wrong and has strayed from basic Christian values.

“The only answer for each of us is, we can try to be good examples where we’re at,” Kelsey said. “We can try to be good examples to whoever is under our charge, whether you’re a basketball coach or you’re a teacher.

“No matter what you are, try to set a good example about what is right.

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