Trying to make sense of the incomprehensible

I get asked, a lot. In the grocery store. In the doctor’s office. At church. At a bar. On the street, or while eating lunch. That’s just in person. Then come queries by text, Facebook Messenger, or in an old-fashioned phone call — two just Sunday evening.

It is inescapable. I try to be responsive, but I hereby apologize to friends and folks who have asked me and gotten no answer.

It’s unexplainable. The unprecedented cancellation of the final four games of the Northwestern State football season is infinitely more puzzling than say, understanding why Texas A&M is apparently going to pay Jimbo Fisher $76 million to not coach the Aggies football team.

In sports, there are scoreboards and schedules (almost always rock-solid). The final horn or buzzer sounds and there’s a winner, and a loser.

No longer with NSU football. Not until next season. There will be one, university officials say, as a quiet  search aims at hiring a new head coach as fast as possible, maybe by Thanksgiving.

What has happened in the last month in Natchitoches? It will take not weeks, but months, possibly years, to reveal the most accurate version of reality producing the tragedy that has spurned angst, anger and distrust among the involved and more broadly-impacted parties.

This is not a storyline that can be wrapped up like plots are on Law & OrderCriminal Minds or NCIS.

Ronnie Caldwell Jr., a player and person generally admired around NSU and its athletics program, was shot to death just after 1 a.m. Oct. 12, on the grounds of where he lived, the Quad Apartment Complex in Natchitoches. Just across the highway from the NSU campus, so close that some students who live at the Quad walk to class.

Ronnie Caldwell Jr., who reportedly attended church regularly in Natchitoches. Who helped coach a youth baseball team of 9-year-olds this summer, alongside a couple of his NSU coaches. Who had a very good grade point average at NSU, and was on a path to a business administration degree.

It was incomprehensible.

The mushroom cloud that has developed is vast. Two days before NSU was to visit McNeese Oct. 28 for the Cowboys’ homecoming, the university cancelled the final four games of the Demons’ football season. President Dr. Marcus Jones and athletic director Kevin Bostian also announced the resignation of sixth-year head coach Brad Laird.

The statement cited “the mental health and well-being of its student-athletes as the primary reason” for the stunning decision to stop the season.

“While our instinct was to return to the field of play following his death, we’ve since learned that the hurt on our team was too deep,” said Jones in the announcement. “Now it is in the best interest of our players, coaches and staff to pause and take this time to mourn.”

There surely were players and team personnel who were emotionally incapable of continuing to compete. There are others who can’t abide the decision to stop playing. But they’re getting accustomed to it.

We’ve seen and heard from several in news reports, on the Billy West Live podcasts, and on social media. I met one, a sophomore, Nov. 4 at the football-free NSU tailgate staged in the annual Homecoming weekend. His perspective is vastly different than the university’s narrative. That gap is what has so many upset – a decision portrayed as reflecting the sentiment of the majority of the team apparently does not.

Two arrests related to Caldwell’s death have been for possession of weapons and drugs. One was a roommate of Caldwell, but not a friend, a 27-year-old arrested years ago on an attempted murder charge, a non-NSU student assigned to Caldwell’s four-bedroom apartment by Quad management. The other, a former teammate, who played alongside him all of the 2022 season, then separated from the squad after four games this season.

Drugs. Weapons. A vile, combustible mix inescapable in our world. Invasive in nearly every community, at every level. Certainly it lurks below the surface in a college town, every college town. For decades there have been drug users who are college athletes, and as tough as it may be to accept, there are drug dealers who are college students, and who are college athletes. Most are experts at deception and avoiding detection – even when walking alongside the innocents.

The investigation into Caldwell’s death will uncover unpleasant truths, some that authorities already know. All that you’ve read and heard to this point is disturbing, and more unsettling news will follow. It already has in the ever-active court of conjecture and the steadily-rolling rumor mill.

It’s a tragedy. Its implications have led to more puzzles, more contradictions, more confusion, and a torrent of discord around the Northwestern community, and especially in Lake Charles, where Cowboy fans are still steaming about losing their homecoming game – after NSU had played Southeastern competitively a week following Caldwell’s death.

I am immensely sorry for the tragedy, but let’s not believe everything that’s said, from any corner. It is all alleged at this stage, except the most dire facts of Caldwell’s death. No witnesses. Just the fatal result of multiple gunshots, reportedly as many as 10.

There will be some bad actors unveiled through this investigation, and plenty of bad decisions, some tragic, that come to light. It may be a lot more simple, less far-reaching or broad in scope, than what was initially speculated.

The call to cancel the season magnified media attention, which has circulated and is percolating across national outlets, and not those who just cover sports. It’s going to shroud not only the football program, but the university and community, indefinitely. Businesspeople in Natchitoches tell me they are on edge fearing NSU’s enrollment dipping as a consequence.

The obvious and conventional alternative — finishing the season, with a reduced roster filled with eager, determined and noble players who had worked relentlessly for many months to play 11 football games, not six – seemed to better serve the majority of those involved, and may have limited the vast outreach.

Over 5,000 signatures on a petition — started by a player and suggested by a student government leader – futilely sought resumption of the schedule. That storyline would have been uplifting, no matter what the scoreboards said.

This is not 48 Hours or Dateline or 20/20, although we might see the sordid facts portrayed on those network news magazines. There won’t be a quick resolution, or simple truths, or a return to normalcy, for quite a while. There will soon be a new coach, and some positivity, for football, direction where none has existed since the cancellation announcement.

There’s a fog around my alma mater. When people ask me if I’m OK, I search for words. I found them Sunday night while watching the series finale of Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth.

Said noted political advisor, observer and strategist Mark McKinnon: “I’m a prisoner of hope.”

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