We were all Hilltoppers for a brief moment in time
I heard that chant plenty last week while covering the Hilltoppers boys basketball team at the Division I Euclid District.
But the more I think about it, that three-word rallying cry isn't just something the Chardon Crazies use as motivating the team. "We are ... Chardon" was the rallying cry for players, fans, coaches and communities all over Northeast Ohio last week, and the reepsonse was overwhelming in my opinion.
Three Chardon students were killed by a suspected gunman Feb. 27 in the high school cafeteria. In the wake of the senseless, heartbreaking tragedy, so many people came together in support of the school and the community, that the line between cities or townships or rivals on the basketball floor blurred together.
We are Chardon.
Last week, we were all Hilltoppers. Perphaps we didn't understand it as well as kids that were in the building when five students were shot, and three would later lose their young life far too soon. But most of us did our part in our own way, whether that was with a moment of silence at a basketball game, a small prayer, a hug or a handshake, words of encouragement or anything and everything in between.
While sports seems so small in the bigger picture of what happened in Chardon, it was far from insignificant on Thursday and Saturday at Harold "Doc" Daugherty Gymnasium as the bleachers filled with a sea of red and black and the Hilltoppers gave everyone something to remember and a few hours to forget.
What I will never forget is not the fact Chardon defeated Madison 72 hours after this horrific event at the high school. My lasting memory won't be that the Hilltoppers pushed second-seed Brush to the limit for three quarters before bowing out of the tournament in the sectional title game.
It will be how young men from Chardon, Madison and Brush carried themselves on and off the floor with such maturity. It will be how Chardon coach Nick Gustin, athletic director Doug Snyder and the Hilltoppers entire staff were the ultimate professionals, having to deal with the media on top of handling the emotion of an impossible situation. There is no handbook for what Gustin and those folks were asked to do last week.
I will always remember the class with which Madison coach Pat Moran and Brush coach Jayson Macauda handled themselves as the so-called "bad guys" who were on the opposite bench, trying to simply win a basketball game. The players on the Blue Streaks and the Arcs all acted well beyond their years, particularly Brush senior Curtis Oakley, who was a model of humility and sincerity during Saturday's postgame press conference.
As for the kids on the Chardon basketball team, I won't even attempt to figure out what their emotions were. I don't know how senior Nick Ruckel got to be not only a premier athlete, but an articulate young man with tremendous perspective and remarkable character in the face of unimaginable adversity.
My role in the Chardon tragedy and aftermath is less than miniscule. I was simply a reporter assigned to cover the Hilltoppers in two highly emotional games, and did that to the best of my ability. But I would be willing to say that all my media brothers and sisters who sat through either game would be robotic or simply lying if they said that the moment didn't get past the usual journalistic wall and hit them as a parent, a son or daughter or just a human being.
I think last week it is safe to say we were all Hilltoppers.
The healing has just begun and no amount of time will ever bring things back to the way they were on Feb. 26. It is a situation I hope I never have to go through again with any school or any community. But the experience was made somewhat tolerable because of the extraordinary way so many people pulled together that were on the inside of the story - especially the Chardon administration, including assistant football coach Frank Hall, whose heroism on the day of the tragedy is inspirational.
The ribbons, the cheering section singing the alma mater, the twn coming together day after day with none easier than the one before.
Sports was a peripheral sidenote to the Chardon tragedy, but whatever role it served, I am honored and humbled that I had a front-row seat to some of the best humanity has to offer.
We are Chardon.
I hope the Hilltoppers never forget that.