Opinion: Heart of a Golden Flash

Richie Mulhall is a multimedia news major and the sports editor for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].

Richie Mulhall

Ordinarily, I am not a big fan of the word “adversity.”

As an avid sports fan and sports editor of The Kent Stater, I constantly hear athletes using the term “adversity” to describe their seasonal plight. The word is so overused, it’s often deemed cliché in sports jargon.

“We fought through adversity to get the win,” many an athlete has spewed after a hard-fought victory, but do many of the athletes really know adversity? 

I was unconvinced up until Friday afternoon, when the Kent State football team defeated Akron, 27-24, to bring the Wagon Wheel back home.

No one, not even the Baltimore Ravens caught in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal, knows adversity like our football team. After all, it’s practically been the definition of our season.

Before fall camp began, Kent State was down one starting offensive lineman to academic suspension and two of the top three tailbacks to suspension from school. The team then lost its No. 1 running back in Traiyon Durham to a broken foot.

Then, as if the start of the season couldn’t get any worse, senior offensive lineman and team captain Jason Bitsko, projected to be the team’s starting center this season, died unexpectedly in his sleep just days before the season opener against Ohio University. The team ended up missing six days of two-a-days grieving and paying respects to the Bitsko family before playing its season opener.

How can you possibly play through a whole season after that and keep it together? Somehow Kent State coach Paul Haynes and the Flashes did it.

All season long, I watched this football team suffer and endure each heartbreaking loss and somehow manage to get back up. At times, part of me almost wanted the Flashes to throw in the towel. Quit. Give up.

But they didn’t.

While other teams might have abandoned a 2-9 lost-cause season, the Flashes fought with all their hearts to make this season memorable. To honor Jason.

The most revealing aspect of this team, though, regardless of how many L’s it tallied in the win-loss column, was Friday’s triumph over Akron.

The fact that Friday’s win was against Akron made the victory all the more satisfying, but the win was so much more to the Kent community than beating a longtime rival.

The victory was proof that all the setbacks that clouded an otherwise bright season could be overcome.

On Friday, I watched a deflated team rise from the ashes, scratching, clawing and fighting to win “by any means necessary.”

The 2014 season was suddenly not a complete failure. Kent State’s final stat sheet said 2-9, but in the grand scheme of things, the Flashes never really lost. Winning is not necessarily rooted in whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

In spite of recording nine losses, the Flashes never really got blown out – other than the Ohio State game earlier in the season, which doesn’t really count in my book.

Don’t get me wrong: It was a tough year in terms of winning and losing, and Kent State couldn’t seem to catch a break.

The heartbreaking season began with a narrow 17-14 loss to Ohio and followed with three straight losses to the University of Southern Alabama, Ohio State University and the University of Virginia. 

Next, Kent State came close to knocking off the five-time Mid-American Conference West Division Champions, but sophomore starting quarterback Colin Reardon and redshirt freshman backup Nathan Strock both went down with injuries as the Illinois Huskies snuck past us.

Forlorn fans could only stare at TV and computer screens from miles away and watch yet another win slip away.

Kent State fans thought for sure the following week against a fellow winless team would finally be the one to bear the fruits of all the labor, but the Minutemen spoiled yet another potential win. 

The final score (40-17) made it seem like the Flashes got pounded, but in reality, Kent State was within one touchdown when the game got away. A blocked field goal, 80-yard touchdown march and pick six quickly turned a seemingly close exchange into a complete blowout in a matter of minutes.

An exciting Homecoming 39-17 over Army briefly perked the Flashes’ spirits up, but the celebration would be short-lived, as the Flashes would receive another crushing blow at the hands of Miami University a week later. 

The Flashes would go on to lose the next two games to Toledo and Bowling Green before finally defeating Akron.

The moral of this story, though, is that Kent State never quit, never gave up. As Jason’s final Tweet read, the Flashes “#stayfocused,” even though the deck was stacked against them from the beginning.

Is Coach Haynes job in jeopardy?

The answer to the above question is no, and here’s why.

Talk has circulated among Kent State students regarding Kent State coach Paul Haynes’ job security. Some people believe Haynes is on the hot seat after posting a 2-9 record this season and a 6-17 overall record in his first two seasons as coach. 

In the NFL, numbers like this might get you fired, but it’s a different game in college football. After the fight Kent State put up this season against all odds, it would be hard for Kent State Athletic Director Joel Nielsen to even think about canning Haynes.

Granted, I wouldn’t necessarily call the season a “success,” but given all the adversity the team was forced to deal with this season, I think it’s only fair to give Haynes the benefit of the doubt.

I couldn’t imagine guiding a team through the difficult loss of a teammate – something Haynes has never had to deal with before in his 21-year coaching career – and rallying the troops to just one win, let alone two.

Haynes was able to harness the sadness he and his team felt after Jason’s death and channel that energy into a valiant season-long effort to honor a fallen friend.

Senior wide receiver Chris Humphrey said it took a heart of gold to turn this team around.

“This guy is the most passionate guy I’ve ever met in my life,” Humphrey said of Haynes. “Before he came here he said open him up, he’s blue and gold, but I swear to God his heart is a fricken Golden Flash.”

I don’t know what Haynes is like as a coach, but what he was able to do this season was truly remarkable, and his victory over Akron solidified his position at Kent State. 

Returning players can rest assured that Haynes’ heart of gold isn’t going anywhere.

For now.