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Close to home

As Auburn as burnt orange and navy blue.

Auburn changed over the course of this past week. I saw it happen with my own eyes. I feel like I was here for it almost every step of the way. I wasn’t here when it all started, though. I was out of town at our family’s farm in middle-of-nowhere Alabama for a reunion.

Like a lot of folks, I first heard about the tragic events of two weekends ago through Twitter. That night, my brother and I were the last two at the house awake, like always, so we decided to ride out to the fields to try and spotlight some coyotes we had heard the night before. We never get any signal or 3G at that house, but somehow out in one of the fields my phone happened to picked up a moment of a “1X”s-worth of data — enough to refresh my Twitter feed just once.

That’s when I saw that something back home had gone horribly wrong.

The next morning I drove for four hours clear across the state of Alabama in the pouring rain. I kept checking my phone for updates. It was a sinking feeling, things going from rumor, to speculation, to confirmation. I drove east through the storm. Of course, when I finally pulled in to Auburn, it was raining the hardest.

As I dried out in my apartment I made a few phone calls. Writing was really one of the last things on my mind. Shootings aren’t really the type of news we cover where I’m working, at The Corner News or here at TWER — and, besides, I was just the sports dude, right?

I did text a couple of guys at the Plainsman to see if they needed any help, though. They thanked me, but didn’t take me up on the offer.

I didn’t have much time after getting out of class the next day before being whisked up into the story unfolding in Montgomery. For the next seven hours, I stayed glued to live coverage on local news and social media. It was amazing to think that all of it —  the pain, the grief, the senselessness, the drama– was happening right here at home.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Wetumpka — right next to Montgomery — and that night it was hard to imagine what I-85 was like between Auburn and the state capitol… Auburn police officers speeding to assist the Montgomery PD…. and FBI and U. S. Marshals…. in their search for the prime suspect in the shooting.

I can’t recall any other public event that had captured my attention so completely. Every part of the story Monday night pulled at every inch of my mind, every inch of my heart. That’s when I realized that the rest of the public must have been just as captivated, and that maybe I should go write. Maybe I might be able to write something that those affected by the tragedy deserved.

So the next day, I skipped class to go to Gene Chizik’s press conference. I really didn’t think anything of it. I skip class all the time. (If it’s raining, I ain’t going.)

This time I had a decent reason, though. I headed up to the athletic complex, parked illegally, and stepped inside for the 2 p.m. conference. It started at 2:11 p.m. It finished, I left, found my truck that didn’t get towed, swung by the McDonald’s drive-through on the way home (food always helps my headache), transcribed my quotes, wrote my story, sent it to my editor to read behind me, and had it posted at The Corner by 3:07 p.m.

I thought it would be a while before I did anything quite like that again, but just a few hours later, Auburn Police called a press conference and (with a little push from Jeremy) I was there. It was more of the same. Reporters from all over the state gathered in front of the podium. Newspapers sent teams of writers, TV stations sent entire crews. Everyone had tons of equipment, an office to go back to, their own interns to carry their stuff.

I had a cellphone and a tape recorder.

I wasn’t worried about writing on anyone else’s level, though. I knew I could put sentences together. I was just worried about looking at things from maybe a slightly different angle, and hoping that maybe I could emphasize a different detail or in some way contribute something to this story’s coverage. I went back to my “office” — my apartment — and wrote a story for The Corner.

On Wednesday, I wrote a column called “Quiet Strength.” It got a lot of response.

Thursday is when things finally began to slow down. In fact, at the candlelight prayer vigil that night on Samford Lawn, it felt like time stood still. I ended up writing a news story about it for The Corner, and we posted a quick something here at TWER.

It took me a lot to turn down a candle of my own when I was offered one by a Tigerette, but I did, and stood over by the cameras with the other media types.

Auburn gathered to mourn that night, and I realized that the Auburn represented there was a lot different from the one I left to go to the farm a week before. All week long, it quietly sunk in that things would never be the same.

That night encapsulated it all, in a way. While the community gathered to mourn and grieve for those lost, it was also a celebration of their lives, and a subtle message of hope spread through to everyone there.

Auburn was changed by this tragedy. It has become a part of Auburn’s history. The ways in which Auburn men and women responded to it have become a part of what makes Auburn what it is.

The bad goes along with the good in some long hallway of images somewhere that defines this university and this community. Remembering those young men is as Auburn as burnt orange and navy blue.

It’s nothing compared to what the victims’ immediate families are feeling, but pain spread throughout the entire community. Maybe several months from now, or in a year, a time will come when an Auburn man or woman can go about a day without being reminded of Saturday’s tragedy. But either way, that day will leave its mark on Auburn forever.

After a closing prayer, I walked away from Samford Lawn through a massive crowd of people, the tragedy’s wide-reaching effects more evident than ever.

It was clear that for each one — and more — this story demanded coverage from a different angle. I tried to help contribute to that. After getting in town on Sunday not knowing if I’d write anything about the matter at hand at all, I ended up writing everything from quick news stories to a column at The Corner on nothing more than sitting and monitoring social media miles away from the day’s action — and yet something so seemingly trivial still felt relevant, poignant.

My hope is that I helped someone somewhere fit together a few pieces of information and perhaps feel a little comfort in trying to make sense of such a trying, troubling time.

All I did was pass along what I saw, but I what I saw this week was amazing.

I saw university leaders provide guidance. I saw students take action. I saw a city come together. I saw other, professional journalists prove to be invaluable assets to their community. I think I always knew in my heart that if any place could pull through something like this, it was Auburn — my school, my town, my home.

Last week, I actually saw it with my own eyes.

Photo via Auburn University / Todd Van Emst.

Related: As story of the year unfolds, Auburn student journalists face challenge.

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