Coach, football team reflect on teammate’s impact



Richie Mulhall

Jason Bitsko’s last tweet wasn’t just a typical status update.

“There are 86,400 seconds in a day,” the tweet read. “Make sure you use one of those to thank god for everything you have #stayfocused.”

His friend and fellow teammate Nate Vance said it was a meaningful motto he lived everyday.

“He knew tomorrow wasn’t promised, and he went through every day with a joy and a kick in his step that was so unlike anybody else that I’ve ever known,” Vance said. “He meant it, and I think the team knew he meant it.”

Kent State head football coach Paul Haynes and Vance, a defensive end on the team, reflected on the the loss of junior center Jason Bitsko at a press conference Thursday afternoon in the M.A.C. Center. Bitsko died Wednesday morning.

“The unexpected tragic loss of Jason Bitsko was profound,” Haynes said Thursday. “To his father, Randy; his mother, Pam; his brother, Ryan; and his sister, Caitlin, our thoughts go out to them during this difficult time. As a football family, we are saddened and aggrieved. It is a process we will continue to get through together as a family.”

Bitsko, 21, was found unresponsive in his off-campus Brimfield apartment by his roommate Wednesday morning after not attending football practice that morning. Portage County Coroner Dean DePerro said Bitsko died of natural causes. Autopsy results have not been released.

Haynes canceled practice and called a team meeting Wednesday. He said in his 21 years  of coaching, he’s never had to deal with the loss of one of his players.

He told the team it needs to stick together for support, especially as it approaches its home opener Saturday, August 30, against Ohio University.

“I’ll lean on these guys just like they lean on me,” Haynes said. “We really talked about how we want to move forward because it’s not about me and it’s not about anyone else making the decisions, but what decisions they want to make moving forward.”

The football team lifted and ran through walkthroughs Thursday morning—not because it was mandatory, but because it’s the way Bitsko would have wanted it.

“(Bitsko) wouldn’t want us to stop getting back into football,” said Vance, who stressed playing the game Bitsko loved would be a coping mechanism for the team.

“He would want us to continue on a normal routine and try to get this team better, but we’re also keeping Jason in mind through this whole process and trying to honor him in what we do, how we practice and the effort we give.”

Tweets, Facebook posts and mail offering support poured into the team and Bitsko’s family in tribute to Bitsko’s memory.

On Wednesday, Haynes and his wife, Denita, spent time with Bitsko’s family. He said his parents expressed an equally deep concern for Bitsko’s second family: the football team.

“The mom was apologetic to me just because of the timing of when we have to get prepared for a game and when the funeral will be, and the dad was worried about us giving a scholarship to a walk-on,” Haynes said. “That’s where their hearts were, which was unbelievable to me.”

Bitsko’s mother, Pam, told Haynes how excited Bitsko was to play center this upcoming 2014 season. She said he was excited to take charge and call the plays on the line.

“They’re unbelievable people and people of faith, so I’m sure they’ll definitely get through this,” Haynes said.

Haynes and Vance said they will always remember Bitsko not by the number of men he blocked on the field or how many accolades he received, but by how many days he brightened with the simple crack of a smile.

“Jason was a good friend of mine, I’ve known him since he got here, and the impact he had on our team was truly a great one,” Vance said. “I’ve never seen someone light up a room as quickly and as easily as he did. He wanted to make our day a good as he possibly could. You could have the worst day ever, and the whole place would just break out laughing — that’s just who he was.”

Haynes said Bitsko was not just a Golden Flash and a football player, but a “son, brother, mentor and friend.”

Haynes said one of his fondest memories of Bitsko was when the football team returned from winter break in January, he formed a leadership committee. At first Bitsko wasn’t on the committee, but once the team began working out and Bitsko proved himself to Haynes, it became clear that Bitsko needed to be a part of the committee.

“I still remember the time that I pulled him aside,  and I told him that from now on I want you at these leadership committees,” Haynes said. “We had them at my house, and these guys would come over, and just the smile and the glow that he meant so much to this team to be a part of that thing — that’s what I remember.”

Before moving off campus, Bitsko lived in Olson Hall on campus. Vance said Bitsko would frequent Vance’s house on weekends and sleep on his couch.

Vance said Bitsko’s method of paying rent, so-to-speak, was to buy Vance and his roommates Taco Bell breakfast in the morning.

“I was laughing about that last night with some of the guys, just everything and the stuff he did,” Vance said. “He was just the man really.”

Funeral arrangements for Bitsko have not been made public. Haynes said the university approved the football team’s request to wear the number 54, Bitsko’s jersey number, on the side of players’ helmets. One side will be the Kent State Flash logo, and the other side will have the number 54 emblazoned on it in Bitsko’s honor.

Richie Mulhall is the sports editor of The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].