Bitsko leaves lasting impression on friends, teammates

Jason Bitsko was the starting center for Kent State's football team. Police said they believe he passed away from an undetermined medical issue.  

Uncredited/AP

KENT, Ohio — Down one good man and his dozens of good deeds, the leaders of the Kent State football team came to a consensus on Thursday.

The tone of the phone calls and the text-message strings that had been going on for 20 or so hours would change. The grieving would be put on hold, temporarily, for a walkthrough practice and group weightlifting session.

Football therapy? Maybe.

What Jason Bitsko would have wanted? The stories point to a definitive yes.

Wednesday morning, the Golden Flashes had gathered for their normal practice. Bitsko, the starting center, was not there. The coaches dispatched a staffer to track down one of Bitsko’s roommates. Together, they went to look for Bitsko at his off-campus apartment.

They found that Bitsko had died in his sleep. Local paramedics and police arrived as soon as possible, but it was too late. There were no signs of foul play.

Bitsko was 21 years old, a fourth-year junior on the football team who started all 12 games at right tackle last season. He was a marketing major, very involved in the campus Fellowship of Christian Athletes group, a popular figure in multiple circles around campus and in his hometown of Huber Heights, Ohio, near Dayton.

As Kent State coach Paul Haynes said Wednesday, "He was not just a Golden Flash. He was a son, a brother, a mentor, a friend."

He was not just a Golden Flash. He was a son, a brother, a mentor, a friend.

Kent State coach Paul Haynes

Later, Haynes said Bitsko "was what we try to stand for in building men."

Haynes had to stand in front of more than 100 men and deliver the news on Wednesday. Practice had ended abruptly, and the Kent State players were called into the team meeting room. Haynes called it "a blur" and doesn’t remember what he said, just that the players knew something was up.

Some of them got sick upon hearing Haynes say that Bitsko had passed away. They sat in a stunned silence, even as that one large meeting broke into several others. Haynes talked to the seniors, then to the juniors, desperately trying to say the right thing without knowing what that right thing was.

The university issued a news release, and tributes quickly started to trickle out via social media. The news led many to Bitsko’s own Twitter account — he’d dubbed himself "Baby Elephant" — and to his final tweet, posted Aug. 14.

Luke Wollet, a captain on last year’s Kent State team, said Bitsko never liked attention but would "get a kick out of" reading the dozens of tributes and articles written about him over the last two days because they say "Bitsko," and that was his preferred name.

Bitsko. Just Bitsko, like his Twitter handle, @isthatbitsko.

"We never called him Jason," Wollet said. "Everybody just said ‘Bitsko,’ and he would always smile back."

His former Kent State linemate Patrick McShane wrote on Twitter: "Great teammate. Even better friend."

Former Kent State coach Darrell Hazell, who recruited Bitsko and now is head coach at Purdue, told The Cleveland Plain Dealer that "everything about (Bitsko) represented quality."

Friday morning brought another walkthrough for the Kent State team, a small step on what will be a long road back to normalcy – Kent State has no full-speed practices scheduled until Tuesday. Monday, the entire team will go to the Dayton area for Bitsko’s funeral.

His parents — both teachers in the Huber Heights City School District — drove the three-plus hours towards Kent upon receiving the phone call that their youngest son had passed away. At the hospital, they were joined by Haynes and his wife, Danita, and the way Haynes tells the story of the conversations there speaks to Bitsko’s unselfishness.

His father, who’s on the coaching staff at Wayne High School, told Haynes that he wanted to make sure his son’s scholarship went to a deserving walk-on player.

His mother, Haynes said, was apologetic for the timing with Kent State preparing for its Aug. 30 season opener. His father, who’s on the coaching staff at Wayne High School, told Haynes that he wanted to make sure his son’s scholarship went to a deserving walk-on player.

"We will definitely make sure we honor the legacy he left," Haynes said.

It’s atypical for a football player not to live with other football players — they share every bit of 11 months of the same schedule — but that never bothered Bitsko. He knew students from classes, from the cafeteria, from the soccer team, from FCA activities and just from seeing them around campus.

"He was friends with everybody," Wollett said. "He was never having a bad day. When you go through a long football season, that kind of outlook sticks out."

Said Haynes: "He had a great impact on our team and across campus. He always had a smile on his face."

Bitsko’s high school coach, Jay Minton, said he remembers a player "bound and determined" to succeed at everything he did and "the perfect template" for what coaches push young student-athletes to be. Minton said Bitsko was always a gifted football player but was too small for the liking of many Div. I coaches, so he pushed to add good weight and muscle and improve.

"He had really found a home at Kent State," Minton said. "He was really happy there. If anything gives us a little bit of solace right now, it’s that."

In Columbus, Ohio State quarterback and Bitsko’s high school teammate, Braxton Miller, decided he wasn’t ready to speak about it publicly. Another longtime friend and former basketball teammate, Michigan State point guard Travis Trice, took to Instagram and posted an old picture of the two.

Bitsko, of course, was smiling.

"He had a joy and a kick in his step so unlike anybody else I’ve ever known," Kent State senior defensive lineman Nate Vance said. "He wanted to make everyone’s day."

Wollett said that sometime during the 2012 season, when Kent State won the MAC East and went to a bowl game for the first time in 40 years, Bitsko started letting out a soft "yessss" with a head bob and a light clap of the hands before each time the team came together.

He had a joy and a kick in his step so unlike anybody else I’ve ever known.

Kent State's Nate Vance

At first, Wollet said, a couple players laughed at Bitsko. Most just thought it was strange.

But as the days passed, and the meetings passed, and the weeks passed, Bitsko kept whispering that same "yes" with the same head bob and the same clap before the team would come together. And not only did more players start laughing, but before long most of the team was joining Bitsko with the same bob, the same playful clap.

"His signature," Wollet said.

In the wake of a 4-8 2013 season, Haynes last January named 15 returning players to a leadership committee. Maybe because he was a little bit of the class clown, Bitsko wasn’t among them.

But as winter workouts progressed and results started to both show and be passed through the football office, Bitsko’s name kept coming up. He was working, and leading, and starting to really take a leap.

"It became clear really fast," Haynes said, "that he needed to be part of that committee."

So, one morning Haynes pulled Bitsko aside. The two talked, the invitation was extended, and the next time the committee met at Haynes’ house, Bitsko was a part of it. At the end of spring practice, Bitsko was presented the annual Gerald and Victoria Read Award for hard work and dedication beyond the call of duty.

That’s just a part of the reason why, next weekend and for the entire 2014 season, Kent State will wear Bitsko’s number on its helmets. The school’s traditional K logo will be on one side and the No. 54 will be on the other.

Vance once invited Bitsko to his house, too. And Bitsko really never left.

As an upperclassman, Vance was living in an off-campus house with other football players. Bitsko was still in the dorms and was happy there, but he liked the video game setup at Vance’s house. He’d come over to play on the weekends and during free moments on weeknights, too. One thing would lead to another and the games would go late.

Vance kept waking up to Bitsko asleep on the couch. After this happened a handful of times, Vance jokingly reminded Bitsko that he was a guest, not a roommate.

So, the next time, Bitsko brought over Taco Bell for Vance and all his roommates.

And the next time he visited, he brought Taco Bell again.

College is the best. Friends like Bitsko are, too.

"I guess that was his way of paying the rent," Vance said.

There are 86,4000 seconds in a day. Only 86,400, as Bitsko’s death and final tweet have reminded all who knew and were touched by him.

By the time the still-hurting Kent State team congregated on the practice field Friday morning, there were about 633,600 seconds until the regular season opener.

Somewhere, the players told themselves, Bitsko was watching.

And there wasn’t a second to waste.