For many in the Auburn Family, the photo has struck a chord.
It has been passed along and shared through social media. Featured on blogs and message boards. Displayed on the front page of the Auburn athletics official website.
It’s drawn appreciation, instilled admiration and, in some cases, it even uplifted spirits.
The photo is of Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik, standing at a podium preparing to speak to the media during a press conference held Tuesday afternoon. Behind Chizik is a large sign, which hangs in the downstairs auditorium inside the Auburn Athletic Complex where the press conference was held.
That sign reads, “QUIET STRENGTH.”
The image was captured by Auburn athletic department photographer Todd Van Emst, who widened his lens to bring the words into his shot. But he wasn’t the only media member there that noticed the sign.
Anyone that was at the press conference that day saw it, and read over its quick message at least once. The sign hangs on the wall just to the right as one enters the auditorium, and when I made my way in and began preparing for Chizik’s arrival, it was one of the first things I noticed.
The auditorium was filled with media members from across the state, all assembled to hear Chizik’s first public words since the shooting at University Heights the previous Saturday, which had claimed the lives of three, including two of his former players. Writers from print media were all gathered in seats near the podium, while television reporters and their crews stood with their cameras at the top of the auditorium. As time passed by the conference’s scheduled 2 p.m. start, everyone looked to the room’s main entrance awaiting Chizik, and to the sign just to its left.
There are other, similar signs hanging all through the room, each featuring words of motivation or an honorable trait, in place to inspire the Auburn football team during team meetings there. However, on that day, none were as memorable as that particular sign, none quite so poignant.
At 2:11 p.m., Chizik walked through those doors and the press conference began. He started by saying that players weren’t going to speak to the media as previously announced, understandably, because it wasn’t the right time and they weren’t ready.
Chizik admitted that he wasn’t really ready, either.
Who could blame him? Chizik is a man of faith, family and football, and at Auburn University those three things are intertwined. He regularly affirms the strong bonds shared within his program, and he considers every one of his players — past or present — to be a part of his family.
On Saturday, he lost two of his sons.
“I’m not ready to do this,” said Chizik.
“But it’s part of my job.”
His job, as appointed to him by athletic director Jay Jacobs, is to coach X’s and O’s to the Auburn football team. But since arriving on the Plains as head football coach in December of 2008, Chizik has taken it upon himself several other jobs within the locker room, the university, and the community.
Chizik stood before the press that day not only as Auburn’s head football coach, but as a public representative of the university, as a faithful member of the community and, most importantly of all, as a father figure to more than 120 young men.
Those young men were hurting.
Chizik said that he and university officials were helping the grieving student-athletes in any way they could — through counseling, through transportation, through prayer. But he didn’t mention the most simple, yet most important way that he was lifting a roster full of sons: through his leadership.
While his players were somewhere mourning, he was at the podium. He spoke clearly, he spoke thoughtfully and he never lost his composure. Amidst his darkest days, Chizik stood at the front of a brightly lit room before the press — and in an indirect way, the world — so that his boys wouldn’t have to.
That’s not a part of his job description as head football coach. That’s a part of his job description as Gene Chizik.
Being in a state where college football coaches are recognized more quickly than the governor, Chizik stood in front of the media that day as the face of Auburn — not just the University, but the city, the community, the Spirit and the Family. He represented Auburn as a somber, tired man, weary from days rocked with emotion.
But more importantly, he represented Auburn as a strong man, willing to continually fight the uphill battle to find healing.
Chizik represented Auburn at that podium, and Auburn is lucky that he did. It was tough for him to face the media, just as it would have been for anyone else on the planet.
It was tough, but for Gene Chizik, it wasn’t impossible.
Before closing, Chizik said that he would do anything within his power to help the families of Saturday’s victims, and to help his own extended football family. He said that everyone involved faced a long road of grieving and healing ahead.
We all know who’s going to be leading the march down that road, for his team, for his university, and for his community.
Some of those first steps will be taken this evening, at a candlelight prayer vigil on campus to honor Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips. The vigil will be led by Auburn University students at 8 p.m. on Samford Lawn. More specifically, it will be led by the Auburn University students that first announced the event themselves through social media: Chizik’s football players.
Unlike most other student gatherings at Auburn, there won’t be any cheering or any singing of the fight song.
There won’t be a loud celebration, like you’d find at Toomer’s Corner. The band won’t be playing, like they would be at Tiger Walk. You won’t hear any shouting like you would on gameday.
In fact, there won’t be much noise at all.
Photo via Todd Van Emst.
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