Last Sunday was the 38th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, when National Guardsmen fired on Vietnam protesters, killing four students at the Ohio college. And one person who will never forget is Nick Saban.
Bill Reiter of the KANSAS CITY STAR talked to the Alabama coach about the events that happened on that day in 1970. Saban was a defensive back on the Golden Flashes football team - and was at school when the infamous shots were fired.
As the Vietnam war raged on in Southeast Asia, student and non-student organizers were calling for an anti-war rally to be held on the Kent State campus for Monday, May 4. In the previous days, protesters had burned down the school’s ROTC headquarters and gotten into clashes with police.
The university & National Guard forbade the rally. 3,000 protesters showed up, anyway - and Saban was almost one of them:
“There was this noon meeting, which we weren’t allowed to go to,” he said. “I had to make a big choice.”
Well, he’d made it. First lunch with a teammate, then a walk up the hill to see what was going on. He might have been there himself had he not decided to eat first.“
We walked toward the meeting and found out people had gotten shot and we scurried our way up there,” Saban said.
The place looked like a military zone. Helicopters fluttered in the air. People screamed. Ambulances streaked by. Saban was dumbfounded.
And Saban wasn’t the only future college coach affected by the events. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was a high school senior in nearby Akron who had already committed to Kent State, when he heard the news over his car radio:
“You’re absolutely shocked,” Pinkel said. “It was just ugly.” … Pinkel and his girlfriend pulled into the high school and headed into journalism class. “We went in there and the teacher said, ‘National Guard 4, Students 0,’ ” Pinkel said.
“The teacher in town, I’ll never forget him because he said, ‘The aftermath of this will last 20 years.’ I’m 17 years old and I’m looking at him like, are you kidding me, 20 years? He was right.”
Despite the shootings, Pinkel kept to his commitment to Kent. Two years later, he & Saban were part of the team that won the Golden Flashes’ only football conference championship & a trip to the Tangerine Bowl. And both men recall the impact that such a triumph had on the students & community.
“I remember talking to some kids on a bus who had nothing to do with athletes and who never ever came to games, who came up to us, right after the championship They thanked me for what we did. They said it was nice to see people smiling and happy and to see positive things about Kent again.
“The effect that had on a really struggling campus and city, I think it was profound.”
“That was the togetherness that everybody showed — rebuilding the school, having a football program that could bring positive things to a tough situation, something positive that they’d never experienced there before. That was a big step in changing that place.”
Still, the current Crimson Tide coach can’t forget about what happened:
“I always think about it,” Saban said. “Allison Krause” — one of four students who died that day — “who I had English class with, I didn’t know her well but she was in class with me.”
Saban trailed off.
“When things strike home like that,” he said after a pause, “it gives you a different perspective on those things.”
With such a somber remembrance, it makes it all the more strange that a football coach who experienced such a tragic event would later compare a football loss to 9/11 & Pearl Harbor.