Thirteen Northwestern University freshmen and sophomores gathered in a cramped first floor corner of Bobb Hall around 6:30 Tuesday evening. They were joined by a can of paint, a brush and excitement. They also carried empathy, compassion, and thoughtfulness.
It looked like a typical gameday scene. A key conference basketball game, Purdue versus Northwestern, loomed that night. Students appeared ready to test the abilities of their vocal cords in support of their school’s team. But in reality, this momentous gathering would precede so much more than just that.
— Northwestern Sports (@NU_Sports) January 22, 2014
Every once in a while, the worst of human behavior brings tragedy. Evil, unimpeded, trumps good. Lives are inexplicably lost.
That was the case on Tuesday. Tragedy struck Purdue University. A teaching assistant was shot dead on Purdue’s campus around noon. That night, the Purdue men's basketball team faced the unenviable task of putting it all behind them and taking the court, a near impossibility. The game, at Northwestern, became secondary.
But almost invariably in times like these, tragedy, in turn, brings out some of the best of human behavior. While evil can never be totally controlled, it can be mitigated by good. And no matter how trivial that act of good is, it touches people in a way not many other things can.
On Tuesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, a group of Northwestern students didn’t change lives; they didn’t even set out to do so. But they touched hearts, gained widespread acclaim, and showed what happens when everything that’s right about college and college sports convenes and unites us above the cloud of tragedy.
In fact, it all began as a simple social event. It began as friends, members of the same fraternity pledge class — InsideNU separately identified the fraternity as SAE — looking to bond through support of their school’s basketball team. Tuesday morning, the plan came together. The thirteen aforementioned students, later joined by five others, were all set to attend that night’s game as they would any other game.
But in a matter of hours, it all changed. Upon hearing the news of the fatal shooting, the mood within the group was altered drastically. And thus, spontaneously, so was their plan for the night.
“It went from being ‘rah rah, go ‘cats,’ and it became ‘wow, this [Purdue situation] is kind of more important,’” one of the involved students, a freshman, said Wednesday. “[We thought], ‘there’s definitely still going to be fans there, we should definitely still root for our team, but maybe it would be the right thing to do to support them [Purdue] as well because we know their going through a tough time.’"
The students collectively decided to exemplify their support by painting a message on their chests, one purple or white letter per person. They considered numerous phrases, but ultimately decided on one.
“STAND WITH PURDUE.”
The students were aware that the game would be televised on the Big Ten Network. They figured they’d get some camera time, maybe the typical rowdy crowd shots going in and out of commercial breaks with which producers and camera men are enamored. But never did they expect the eventual result.
A Purdue fan approached the group of eighteen students behind the basket. He explained to them that he was a recent graduate of Purdue. The man was there to support his team, but likely had much of his mind back in West Lafayette given the events of earlier that day.
He proceeded to express his gratitude to the students not only verbally, but also physically. The man went down the line, shaking each and every one of the students’ hands to show his thanks.
And this instance was a microcosm of the whole night. Publicity began flooding that first row of the Welsh-Ryan bleachers. A few wonderfully evocative photographs surfaced. BTN later posted one picture to Facebook, where its page has over 260,000 “likes”. It elicited some beautiful responses in the comments.
“Oh my goodness,” wrote a Purdue fan. “As a Boiler, I say thank you to the classy Northwestern student body. I thought maybe there would be a moment of silence [at] the game. Never did I imagine an expression of such fantastic sportsmanship. Well done NU!”
Another commenter wrote, “speaking as one of the thousands of students who spent an hour hiding in a locked room on [the Purdue] campus: Thank you for this gesture! It means a lot.”
By the end of the night, USA Today, CBSSports.com, Sporting News, and Yahoo Sports, among others, had picked up the story. The potential magnitude of the eighteen students’ simple gesture had never occurred to them. By the following morning, however, it had really hit home.
“Hearing the appreciation for what we did,” the freshman said, “is just incredible.”
On Wednesday morning, painting equipment lies in that same cramped corner. In its idleness, it reflects on a memorable night. Some 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students will soon arise to meet the day, many unaware of just how gracious, how honorable some of their peers are.
Students, especially those in fraternities, often get negative publicity for matters such as hazing, excessive drinking and other transgressions of university policy. But Tuesday night brought light upon only the positive side. It was a great example of young men with great minds uniting to do something truly special.
Something that truly was an example of good mitigating evil.
For this story, involved students opted to speak anonymously, so as to not draw attention away from what was truly at the heart of their message – the tragedy at Purdue.