Three days after the crash, when Sutton spoke at a news conference for the first time, I was in the front row, noting his suddenly weathered face and worn eyes. “I’ve tried to advocate to the team that this is a long process,” he said. “One way to do it is to think of the good times we had with the people who are gone.”
I had friends to turn to. College newspapers have reasonably robust staffs, and ours was tight-knit. What I did not have was any self-care playbook or even sound advice. Journalism school emphasizes objectivity and tenacity, so I tried to stay objective and tenacious. The pain I was covering belonged to somebody else. It could not have been mine.
Almost robotically, I powered through the coverage, tamping down every feeling of grief or heartache as it arose. When I left college and became a professional journalist, I recused myself from coverage of the crash, eschewing memorials, anniversaries or reflective essays. When I graduated in May 2001, I boxed up all my coverage — all the writing, editing, designing and planning — and did not open the box until 2017.
I knew there was something inherently unhealthy about ignoring my feelings. Grief and heartache are as common for reporters as striving for objectivity.
A few months after graduation, I was living in Oklahoma City when the Sept. 11 attacks happened, and I drove the 60 miles to Stillwater to support the student journalists as they put out that day’s newspaper. Today, I watch my colleagues cover death, a pandemic and unrest, sometimes while facing personal risk, and I hope I am doing something — anything — to help them process their own experiences.
The joy in sports also never left, although the experience gave me new perspectives. It is just a game, but to some people — including many Oklahoma State fans — that game is all that matters.
Its programs have endured more tragedy in recent years. In 2011, another plane crash — this one killing the head women’s basketball coach, Kurt Budke, and his assistant Miranda Serna — brought grief new and old to the university. In 2015, a driver accidentally veered into a crowd at the football homecoming parade, killing four people.