Rebels with a cause
Columbine HS football team is out to set the record straight after shootings
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 4, 1999, issue. Subscribe today!
ANDY LOWRY, the football coach at Columbine High, is retracing the route Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris traveled during their April murder spree when he comes across an eight-sided trophy case hanging from the lobby ceiling. "Look," he says, pointing. "It wasn't touched. If they wanted a symbol, it doesn't get any better." Down the hall is a weight room bigger than the chemistry lab. "If they were looking for jocks, they could have gone there." If there's a bit of defense lawyer in his tone, it's because he's been on trial ever since his Rebels were accused of turning Columbine into a hazing house of horrors, taunting students like Klebold and Harris until they snapped. "I've run it around in my mind a million ways," says Lowry, "and what troubles me is that everyone has been blamed here except Dylan and Eric. They're the ones who pulled the trigger, not my kids."
The story behind the story
I'm not sure I've ever had more access for a story than I had with this one, or been more conflicted about what to do with it. For two days in the fall of 1999, I managed to get lost inside of Columbine High School. I'd arranged to do a profile of its football team, but somehow falling through the administrative cracks, I was allowed to wander the school's hallways and talk to students with impunity. No one used the 9/11-era phrase "too soon" yet, but it was clear to me that it was -- too soon for these kids to put on a brave face. Six months after they witnessed the unthinkable, they were frustrated about having to pretend they were ready to "move on" when they weren't. It was obvious they were still suffering. I channeled their anger into something that wasn't a sports story, which is why it never appeared in the pages of The Mag. I think the version that replaced it, however, tried too hard to be a sports story -- specifically, a portrait of a town's redemption through its team. In the end, Columbine's players were unable to summon the self-reflection necessary to talk about the charge that had been laid at their feet: that they'd created the bullying culture that caused Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to enter the library with guns drawn and yell, "All jocks stand up." Instead they came off as cold, a little callous. It was unfair, of course, to put them in the position of having to defend themselves in the first place. It was still early in the mass-shooting era. They hadn't yet learned the language of massacre and bullying that we're all too familiar with today. -- Shaun Assael
Columbine's motto, Stretch For Excellence, once told you all you needed to know about this school of 2,000 in the Denver suburb of Littleton. It's a place where a bond issue was passed so the kids could get a new gym, where the view from nearby Rebel Hill includes six side-by-side baseball diamonds, where a news show produced by students for an in-class TV network features regular sports updates, where the football team has won seven of the county's last eight sportsmanship awards. Under Lowry, Rebel football didn't seem like an obsession -- just one of many points of pride.
Now, that pride has become a prickly issue. The game plans haven't changed, and neither have the opponents. What has changed is that Columbine has become a macabre picture stop. A principal from L.A. had to be turned away at the door recently when he showed up unannounced, asking for a tour. A senior picnic turned sullen when tourists started snapping photos from the street. Camera crews have become a fixture on Rebel Hill. It all got so creepy that Columbine decided to hold a rally on the first day of school, complete with parents who formed a life chain around their kids. The scene was broadcast live on national TV. The Day 2 story was all about the three swastikas found etched on school grounds.
Lowry is a gentle man who prefers to persuade rather than punish. He also likes to talk. But he now finds himself caught between parents, lawyers, reporters and politicians. If his job isn't on the line, the way he does it certainly is. As a result, his Rebels might be the most politically correct team in the nation.
It's an early kickoff, 4 p.m. on a Thursday, but the bleachers at All-City Stadium are surprisingly full. (The Rebels' practice field, which was torn up by police cars and helicopters, is being restored by the Colorado Rockies, but all the league games are played downtown at All-City.) Six of the starters who helped the team go 9-1 before losing in the first round of the '98 playoffs are back on offense -- which explains why the Rebels rank seventh in a field of 40 Denver-area schools. The defense, though, is almost brand-new. Lowry has kept his players practicing for nearly 20 straight days. It's a regimen most seem grateful for after a summer with too much time to think. Following the whirlwind of memorials for the 15 dead, most of the Rebels needed to get away from yellow ribbons and bumper stickers like the one that reads "Evil didn't win." But while they were away -- some to sports camps, others to cushy resorts -- their fellow students started opening up to reporters. Brooks Brown, a friend of the gunmen, recalled being outside school once when a carload of athletes threw a bottle that broke at his feet. Brown told The Washington Post that Klebold had said, "Don't worry, man, it happens all the time."
Fullback Landon Jones, the heart of the Rebel offense, saw his breakup with a girlfriend become a story in The Denver Post. The girl sought a restraining order after accusing Jones of threatening her, throwing things at her and pounding on the door to her home until a deputy arrived.
What's not normal, some say, is the Jefferson County School District's penchant for playing to the media. With so many eyes on them as the school year began, officials came out swinging, with a zero tolerance policy that promised suspensions for kids who use ethnic epithets. Principal Frank DeAngelis won't talk numbers, but a skateboarding student says: "A friend of mine was nearly suspended for flippin' the bird. It's getting so you always feel watched." (One curious result of the shootings: It's easier to eavesdrop since the blood-stained carpets were removed; conversations travel better down bare linoleum floors.)
District officials also invited a diversity expert from Northeastern University to lecture to 20 football coaches. When the press showed up at what most thought would be a private session, coaches sat with their arms crossed in quiet, seething protest, feeling singled out and humiliated.
That anti-media hostility has filtered down to the kids. Maybe it's because they've had their souls strip-mined for months. But when several Rebels were asked how they felt returning to a school where 15 died on April 20, a surprising number displayed the dispassionate distance of rubberneckers passing the scene of a pileup. Starting QB Justin Flansburg admitted he'd been ready to "move on" as of the 21st.
Principal DeAngelis points out that his students had varying levels of exposure. "They're in different stages of healing," he says. "Some were outside when it happened, some were hiding inside, some still see horrible things at night." Adds Lowry: "Everyone wants the big revelation. But in the best of circumstances, half of these kids don't know what they're feeling on a given day. How were they supposed to process this?"
The harder question, which Lowry doesn't really address, is whether kids insulated by the glory and privilege of football have the tools to understand why they had become so thoroughly resented. Walk through Columbine's narrow halls while columns of Rebels, fresh from weightlifting, wait in pads for the practice bus. They're well-behaved and you give them the benefit of the doubt, thinking the '99 team shouldn't have to carry the baggage of a predecessor. But as you pass by, trying to find space to walk, you can't help but rewind in your head the voices of the smaller, scared students who speak of an everyday gantlet of snickers and sneers, taunts and intolerance.
At one preseason practice, Lowry invokes the massacre while lecturing about compassion. The 35-year-old coach tells his players that as he sought cover behind a storage shed, he found a student whose leg was spurting blood and whose cheek had been ripped away by a bullet.
"Fellas, you can't be slapped in the face any harder than you have been," he says. "You know how it feels. So make an impact in someone's life. You guys are lucky. There are little freshmen who look like sixth-graders. When you fellas pass by, pat them on the back or on the head. Make an impact. I told you about my friend, the one who got shot. I didn't know him from Adam. He wasn't physically blessed like you guys. But he loves football. Let's make a huge impact in his life."
It's a "Saving Private Ryan" speech for a "Varsity Blues" audience, but Lowry's Rebels know they'll have to endure a certain amount of ritual remembrance throughout the year. At the opening game, they come out wearing the No.70 of their slain teammate, Matt Kechter. Kechter's younger brother tosses the coin.
Linebacker Ryan Barrett was in the library with Kechter when the gunfire started. After Kechter was shot, Barrett hurdled a counter and hid until the fusillade ended. He ran out of the school and onto a football field filled with police cars before being whisked to a spot blocks from his home.
Ryan has a boyish face and an infectious enthusiasm tempered by an adult's poise. He practices every day knowing his father, a post office supervisor, is likely there watching. He says he wants to be a journalist. When he meets a working reporter, he flashes an Eagle Scout smile. It's hard to imagine him walking alone through Littleton's streets minutes after his best friend was killed.
"You know when you wake up dreading something?" he says. "It was like that all the time. I felt like the world was closing in on me. I wasn't sure I could come back. It's still eerie. The school wants to make it a big secret by putting lockers up to seal off the library. But I don't think sealing it off will help. I don't want to shut it out. I talk to Matt every night. Things I can't tell anyone, I tell him. A couple of weeks ago, it was lightning real hard. I figured it was Matt sitting up there in the clouds, letting me know he was listening."
Moments before the Denver East kickoff, Dusty Hoffschneider limbers up on the sidelines. A squat, muscle-bound 17-year-old with a barbed-wire tattoo on his right biceps, Dusty is connected to the tragedy by last name: Eric Harris singled out his brother, Rocky, in one of his many anti-jock Web rants. A two-time state wrestling champ, Rocky once pleaded guilty to burglary and criminal mischief after helping friends settle a score by ransacking a man's home. He also caused a school scandal by slurring a Jewish student. He's been cited as an example of Columbine's runaway athlete.
Dusty already has a state wrestling title to match Rocky's. He is also one of the best prep defensive tackles in Colorado. Against Denver East, he notches two quick sacks and a safety, lofting the team toward a 35-0 rout. Friends say he laughs more than Rocky, and the laughter has a way of pushing one side of his mouth up. From a distance, it can be confused with a sneer.
If there's one thing Dusty shares with his brother, it's decisiveness. And Dusty is sure that neither Rocky nor any of the other Rebels played a role in pushing Harris and Klebold over the edge. He's certain Rocky didn't know the boys, although, he points out, everyone knew Rocky. "It's always the same," he says. "If you're on top, everyone wants to knock you down."
Flansburg and fellow senior Daane Reinking seem no less sure of themselves, but they are better versed in the prevailing tolerance lingo. "I've been more open with other people since that day," says Reinking, a linebacker with a 3.9 GPA. "I mean, you need to open yourself up because you never know what can happen tomorrow." Flansburg interrupts to say, "Yeah, it's like, when I see kids picking on other kids, I'm quicker to get in there and say, 'Yo, back off.'" Reinking rubs his cleft chin and adds, "I think we're all a lot more cautious about what we say because they're not talking about slaps on the wrist."
Maybe the zero tolerance thing will work. But with pending lawsuits and task forces itching to release TV-friendly reports, there's a lot more soul-baring to come. The parents of Isaiah Shoels, who was slain in the library because he was black, are already promising that their $250 million suit against the gunmen's parents is going to show "the ugliness that went on there."
When Lowry is asked about an allegation that one of his players was suspended for using an ethnic epithet, his shoulders sag and the breath drains from his lungs. "Is this different than anywhere else?" he asks. "No. These are good kids. And some need a little work, like kids anywhere."
Driving rains bring the Denver East game to an early and merciful end. Lowry asks a reporter to step out of the cramped cement-block locker room, then talks to his kids in private. When they emerge, they form a polite high-five line. White hands clasp black. The coach would have asked for the same gesture if cameras from the "Today" show and "SportsCenter" hadn't been there. But he's pleased that they are, bringing America this view of Columbine. Because during the coming months, he can only imagine what portraits will be drawn.