NIU returns to court Tuesday in first game since shooting tragedy
CHICAGO -- Michael Patton heard the news and immediately grabbed his phone.
A gunman had just opened fire in a crowded lecture hall at Northern Illinois, and he wanted know where his brother was, so he tried to call.
He tried again. And again.
Michael Patton was safe at basketball practice, but his brother was somewhere on campus.
Ricardo Patton was worried, too. On the way home from a recruiting trip, the Huskies' basketball coach knew one son was fine but the whereabouts of Ricardo Jr., a football player, were a mystery.
Cell calls were going nowhere, but finally, after nearly three hours, Michael's phone rang. His brother was on the other end, and the mystery was solved.
"We got lucky," Michael Patton said.
No one needs to remind him how lucky.
Northern Illinois will take another step toward normalcy when the Huskies host Western Michigan Tuesday in the first athletic event on campus since the shootings on Feb. 14.
Classes resumed Monday, but getting back to routine won't be easy.
Not when there are white crosses on a knoll. Not when there's crime scene tape outside the auditorium where the gunman opened fire, killing five students before taking his own life. Not when counselors are attending classes, offering to help students.
For a school determined to move on, a basketball game is just a small step. Or, maybe it is more than that.
"I think it's huge," coach Ricardo Patton said. "When you talk about trying to get over as best you can and move forward after such a devastating tragedy, I think it's great to get back to some sense of normalcy as best you can."
No NIU athletes were among the killed or wounded, although a men's soccer player was in the class during the rampage.
The shootings stirred the elder Patton's memories of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. He was the head coach at Colorado and one of his players, Josh Townsend, lost a sister. Patton took over 11 months ago at this rural school in DeKalb, Ill., about 65 miles from Chicago.
Senior Shaun Logan had film analysis class the day of the shootings in the lecture hall where they occurred.
"I was just in there that morning," said Logan, a forward. "If this would have happened any earlier, I would have been in there. So it makes you feel kind of weird."
Michael Patton's friend was there during the shootings, but she escaped without injury. He has a theater class in that hall, but hasn't been by since then. His class got moved, as did Logan's.
"I don't know if I'd want to go by it, to be honest with you," said Michael Patton, a freshman. "For me, it's just kind of easier to stay away from the area. It makes me think about it a lot more. Hopefully, I won't have to go near that lecture hall."
There has been an outpouring of support from colleges and pro teams since the shootings. Coaches and administrators got calls from their counterparts at Virginia Tech, where a massacre last spring left 33 dead and dozens injured.
Closer to home, there were moments of silence at college and pro games. The Chicago Bulls wore NIU T-shirts during pregame warmups, and the Chicago Blackhawks sported NIU decals on their helmets. The Chicago White Sox will autograph caps that they wear during Wednesday's exhibition opener against Colorado and ship them to NIU for an auction to benefit the university's February 14 Student Scholarship Fund. They will also auction an autographed NIU jersey and cap along with a White Sox bat and two other signed items on their Web site next month, with the proceeds going toward the scholarship fund.
Western Michigan has been paying tribute, too, wearing NIU ribbons on its jerseys. And, of course, there will be tributes on Tuesday.
This was already a difficult season for the Huskies (6-17, 3-8 Mid-American Conference), even though their most recent game was their best. Two days before the shootings, they beat Akron 88-78 and snapped the Zips' 22-game home winning streak. They were scheduled to host Western Michigan on Feb. 17, but NIU had closed down by then.
When the team returned to practice on Wednesday, the elder Patton noticed "a level of focus and excitement just getting back around one another."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press